"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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle