It’s a bad idea to base policy on myth, and while there’s not enough social housing to go round the suspicion that foreigners get priority will persist.
Local housing for local people may sound like good politics, but will it lead to good policy? It’s never a good idea to base a policy on a myth, and the fact is that only 5% of housing let by councils and housing associations goes to people who weren’t born in the UK. And of course this figure includes people who have lived here for years, people who have been married to British spouses but have since separated, and so on. In other words many of those who were born abroad may have as good a claim to be in housing need and to have paid their contributions to the welfare system as someone born here.
Why is there a popular perception in some areas that “foreigners” are getting housing that should go to local people? Part of the explanation is surely that when there is a massive shortage of affordable housing, people need someone to blame. Locals see foreign workers moving into “council housing” that may have been sold under the right to buy and is now let privately. And it is very easy to blame ethnic minorities for taking up the available housing even though half of ethnic minority people were born in the UK.
The good news is that the government seems to have avoided a kneejerk reaction to the myths and instead will encourage more choice in letting affordable housing, and will allow more scope for councils to let out properties to local people, for instance by giving more weight to time spent on the waiting list. As long as it leaves the legislation intact, councils will have some scope to give their policies a more local flavour but will still be obliged to assist people who are homeless and in urgent need.
It also makes sense to tighten up the system to make sure that people living in affordable housing are the original tenants – in London, especially, there is still too much illegal sub-letting.
One of the disadvantages of council housing compared with other sectors is that tenants are less likely to move to take up new jobs. The government wants to change this, and such a reform is welcome – but previous schemes have foundered on bureaucratic detail, so it will be important to get this right.
Of course, tinkering with the rules is all very well, but the key issue is the shortage of housing. Until substantial headway is made in providing more homes, there will still be fertile ground for myths about why people can’t get housing. Government has already shifted money into building more homes for rent and is due to announce more still. Given the state of the public finances, it is probably doing as much as is it can, but with council waiting lists heading towards two million households, the gap between supply and demand is widening faster than the government can close it.
A crucial, relatively low-cost reform is to give councils much more power over their own council housing finances. The government has just concluded a massive review but the previous housing minister seemed to balk at handing responsibility to councils. John Healey, the new minister, must be bolder. Not only would local people gain a simplified system that would be less susceptible to myths, but it could give councils the same freedom as housing associations to raise finance and build houses. At present councils have the further advantage that they can borrow cheaply and much more easily than associations.
Giving local authorities these new powers could kick-start a building programme that truly would enable them to reduce their waiting lists. This would be the best way to tackle the stories about foreigners getting social housing – by providing more of it to go around so that there is less scope for claims of unfairness and queue-jumping.
Written jointly with Richard Capie.
Original post and comments: The Guardian