Guest post by James Gregory
There is much hubbub in the air as we all await Brown’s new vision for social housing. An announcement in Parliament is expected to contain a promise of another £500m for affordable housing, probably extending Homebuy direct, the key vehicle of a strategy for extending ownership to those priced out of the market.
But, as ever, this promise of substance is accompanied by a piece of political cleverness. In an apparent play to the kind of fears and resentments that the BNP has capitalised on, local authorities will be encouraged to take into account the applicant’s ties to the area. No longer will the immediate neediness of applicants trump the history of ‘locals’.
At first sight, this seems, as I have suggested, to be a straight play to the low electoral politics of immigration and race. But this should not blind us to the potential radicalism of the proposal. For in the insistence that ‘need’ should not be the sole criterion of housing allocation, Brown will be bumping the most sacred of policy cows: that social housing is a scarce good that can only be efficiently distributed if highly targeted.
Of course, social housing is a scarce good. But, as I argued in the Fabian Society report In the Mix: Narrowing the Gap between Public and Private Housing, it is targeting that does so much to undermine the value of social housing. Steep targeting based on need is a recipe for stigma and alienation, and this stigma, in turn, undermines public support for more social housing. And so the vicious circle continues: social housing is not for people like us, so why support it?
It is, then, high time for a sophisticated debate on council house waiting lists. Widening our approach to allocations should not only help to erode the stigma of the tenure, but it will also help to break up the concentrations of poverty that can be a cause as well as a symptom of disadvantage. Just as importantly, a greater mix of tenants will make the task of housing management that much easier; freeing up time and resources to help those that would most benefit from holistic management services (such as debt and employment advice) that many housing associations are increasingly offering.
So, the Brown announcement will almost certainly be a piece of politics, and an attempt at electoral positioning. But it is up to us to ensure that the debate is wider than this.
James Gregory is a research fellow at the Fabian Society.