Sunday 3 May 2009

In the mix: must housing segregate?

The Independent on Sunday has a news feature previewing our report 'In The Mix: Narrowing the Gap between public and private housing, which is published on Friday next week.

By splitting up those living in public and private housing, successive governments have fostered suspicion towards those who live on council estates. Research for the study found that a third of those polled felt people living on council estates had "nothing in common with them", and 60 per cent of those believed that mixed housing would be a bad idea. It concludes that segregated estates have had a devastating effect on social mobility. "There is nothing inevitable about this correlation between housing and disadvantage. It has been caused by political and institutional processes – and such processes can be arrested and altered.

James Gregory, author of the report, has a post-budget commentary in Inside Housing, in which he writes:

This is an opportunity to tackle the assumption that social housing tenants and benefit claimants are dependent in a unique, and morally compromising, way. As is now plain to see, dependence on the state to meet and protect our housing needs is a matter of degree. When push comes to shove, as the floods of 2007 reminded us, even the wealthiest homeowner relies on the state to protect their rights.

And this truth can and should be reflected institutionally. One way to do so would be to replace the many forms of housing assistance – including housing benefit and support for mortgage interest – with a single, housing cost credit.

A housing cost credit would provide for different needs and risks under the same universal system, cutting across classes and backgrounds. And there would be a sliding scale of help with a gradual taper, in which assistance was withdrawn incrementally as households move up the income scale.

One of the practical pay-offs would be the removal of some of the notorious work disincentives of the housing benefit system, where high withdrawal rates can disincentivise work. But, just as importantly, it may help us to move away from the stigma and prejudice, and break down the divisions between those that need the state and those that think they do not, that has dogged the social housing sector for the past three decades.

The housing report forms part of our major Fabian Society and Webb Memorial Trust research project on contemporary strategies to tackle inequality and poverty, marking the centenary of the 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law.

We will have more from and about the report when we publish it next week.

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