"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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide