Earlier in the year, David Cameron did a bit of “thinking aloud” on social housing and set the cat among the pigeons by questioning the security of tenure that social housing tenants currently enjoy. Using the kind of populist rhetoric that the coalition has become so adept at, Cameron’s idea was couched in terms of “fairness”, and security of tenure was recast as “homes for life”. It’s a clever technique. Ask Mr and Mrs Bloggs if they think we should make tenure less secure, they will probably say no. But ask them if it’s fair for people to be given a home for life at the taxpayer’s expense, and they’ll almost certainly say no to that as well. Today, Grant Shapps was airing his boss’s ideas once again, and putting a bit of flesh on the bones. New social tenancies are to be offered for an initial 2-year period, after which time an assessment is to be undertaken by their landlord to see if their circumstances after the two years would still qualify them for social housing. If not, they’ll be given 6 months to find other accommodation.
When the Prime Minister first floated his ideas on tenure, I cautioned against a knee-jerk response from the left, or from the champions and bureaucrats of social housing generally. The housing crisis in England is so severe, and its problems so intractable, that just going ahead with business as usual is no more socially responsible, or self-evidently morally superior, than the loosening of security of tenure. In that previous post, I argued that one of the most fundamental problems with housing in this country is that the private market of home ownership, and the publicly-funded market of social housing operate on different financial planets, and that the flow between them is virtually non-existent. Measures such as the right-to-buy and intermediate products such as the various flavours of shared-ownership have had marginal consequences at best in terms of increasing this flow between public and private housing.
I won’t repeat my argument for imposing a steeply tapered capital gains tax on the excessive and socially divisive profits that accrue from home ownership. I maintain that something along these lines is necessary if we are at all serious about making housing in this country operate as a single multi-tiered market in which the public and private sectors play complementary roles, and in which movement between them is possible. Until something is done to tackle house prices, we will continue to maintain a sharp division in our society between the housing haves and have-nots. Not that that’s the only miserable consequence. The whole financial crisis which continues to buffet us via austerity budgets and banking bail-outs is intimately connected with the South-Sea bubble in housing that we have conspired to create with our fetish for home ownership and our love affair with this one specific form of inflation.
We know that as in every market, unless we can create a more sustainable balance between supply and demand, then prices will continue to be driven up. We have to increase supply. But the Irish experience, with their 300,000 empty and unsaleable properties, should teach us that supply of bricks and mortar is not the only lever on the market. The supply of fantasy money has a role to play as well. So it is plain to see that if we really want to address our housing market dysfunction we have to build more houses, and lend more responsibly. This latter is not what we’re currently doing. Throwing the pendulum abruptly from ridiculous laxity in lending to ridiculous restriction on lending is not “lending more responsibly”.
But back to security of tenure. Whilst we have 1.8 million families (5 million individuals) on the social housing waiting list, and no immediate prospect of building our way out of the problem, then I do not see how turning an ideologically blind eye to the nature of tenure is a justifiable way of proceeding. Don’t think about this in the deceitful rhetoric of houses for life, or nebulous notions of fairness. Think about it in terms of the classic socialist values of need. If the needs of those waiting in desperation for social housing that never comes are greater than the needs of some of those already in social housing, in which version of socialism is it OK to say to the former, “Tough!”?
It’s important that I emphasise that I am not supporting the coalition’s policy initiative as it stands, because they are refusing to attack this problem from both ends. They are happy to do the bit that puts relatively poorer people in jeopardy, but they are not willing to tackle the bit that might jeopardise the interests of those who’ve made a killing out of an insane private housing market. But if they were, then I genuinely think that some kind of review of tenure is justifiable. The objective here is to try and arrive at a seamless housing market that encompasses public and private renting, as well as all the shades of outright and partial home ownership. Reducing security of tenure in social housing must be balanced by increased security of tenure in private renting. Moving from public renting to private renting should be an economic issue, not an issue of security. Finally, we need to do more to encourage and to create mixed communities. Moving on from social renting to private renting might be less daunting if it means only moving around the corner, and at the same time mixed communities work against the creation of ghettos of worklessness, impoverishment, and social pathology.
What is clear is that the housing market – as a whole, not just social renting – is broken and dysfunctional. Housing is not a means to fantasy wealth, but a means to a sustainable, decent home. If your interest is in making money, please find another way of doing it. But I do believe that the current system of absolute security of tenure in the social sector is an affront to justice. However, the coalition will not get my support for changing this until it presents it as part of an overall package for the housing problems that afflict our society so badly. There’s absolutely no sign of them doing that, unfortunately.