"Expensive" social housing is unfair for everyone in the system

Sell off the priciest homes, build more with the money, and everybody wins, argues Policy Exchange.

In England we face both a housing crisis and a growth crisis. Despite high house prices and high and rising rents, the number of homes started last year fell 4 per cent to 98,000. The complexity of this topic has floored the Coalition. Policies to kick start house building are failing. Some of the ideas being floated around Whitehall would actually make a bad situation worse by propping up a dysfunctional model of development. Social housing waiting lists have hit an all time high of over 1.8m households. Individuals and families are trapped waiting in often unsuitable accommodation. The Coalition wants to get our economy growing and sees more homes as key to this. They also grasp the housing crisis is focused on the young, disproportionately hit by Coalition policies that are increasing spend in some areas (pensions) but cutting others (tuition fees).

Fortunately, there is a popular policy that could lead to the development of a lot of new homes while making the welfare system a lot fairer. At present, around a fifth of the social housing stock in this country is "expensive" – worth more than the average for that sized property within the same region. Selling off this expensive housing stock when it becomes empty could raise £4.5bn a year. This could be used to build up to 170,000 new social homes a year, 850,000 over five years, the largest social house building programme since the 1970s. Current policy isn’t just unfair to the taxpayer but also the nearly two million families and individuals waiting on the social housing waiting list. One single family will be given a house that most taxpayers could never afford and force others to wait – possibly years.

The more you think about it, the less justified the current system seems. The public agree. 73 per cent agreed social tenants should not be offered new properties worth more than the average in the local authority. 60 per cent agreed social tenants should not be offered new properties in expensive area. The system is so unfair that even social tenants agreed with changing it. Across all regions, classes and tenures, people could see that the idea of expensive social housing for life just doesn’t fit with a fair welfare system.

There are muddled arguments against this on the grounds it would isolate social tenants and cause unemployment. But reform would only affects 20 per cent of the existing social housing stock, sold off slowly as it become vacant. If we mix new homes in the bottom half of the housing stock, and if we maintain 17 per cent of our homes as social housing, the mix would be a 2:1 ratio of private to social housing. On employment, the evidence shows higher employment in more expensive areas. But the link is weak. Even assuming just living in a more expensive area causes this rise in employment, rather than people with jobs living in more expensive areas, the cost per job created through expensive social housing is £2.5m. This eye-watering sum compares to £33,000 per job the Regional Growth Fund creates. Because of commuting, location isn’t that important.

We could create a huge amount of new decent quality council homes. Properties should have an open market value above a set minimum to ensure decent standards. Local people should control design and quality. We need to get a grip on housing policy. This is a quick and popular option that the civil service should have proposed years ago. So what is the Coalition waiting for?

Wrest Park, in Silsoe, England, is not social housing. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Alex Morton is a senior research fellow at Policy Exchange

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage