"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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder