"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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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