The proposal of Grant Shapps, the right-wing Tory housing minister, that local authorities should write their own rules for housing waiting lists opens a Pandora’s Box in the most sensitive area of welfare policy. New Labour had already flirted with the idea of removing people from Council tenancies if they persistently failed (according to Ministerial criteria) to seek and find work, and also of giving priority to people who had worked hard and amassed a significant NIC record. The Shapps idea however goes the whole way – discretion to exclude immigrants (except from the EU), those with a criminal record or mental health history, difficult ASBO families, those perceived as lazy or feckless, and any other problem-causing ‘undesirables’. But there is an alternative to Tory/New Labour authoritarianism.
Like health and education, rented housing should never be used as a political punchbag. Whilst there certainly have to be firm rules to deal with households that abuse their rights and disturb other people’s rights to peace and quiet, eviction or denial of a house for social or economic reasons should never be part of the armoury. But the real point is that Shapps’ approach is the wrong answer to the wrong question. The real issue in housing is not allocation policy, it’s the excruciating paucity of social or affordable housing.
Housing shortage has reached pressure cooker levels. The Council waiting list now stands at 1.8 million, which is an average of more than 3,000 per constituency – though very uneven across the country (in my constituency it’s 8,500). It is at least as many again in the Housing Association category (though there is certainly considerable overlap). The overall national waiting list must however be around 4 million – that’s about 15% of all households in the country.
The real answer to the housing problem stares one in the face – build more houses. The number of Council homes built has plummetted from 13,000 a year in 1990 (when Thatcher was evicted) to just 100-300 a year in the last decade, which is less than half of one house per year per constituency! The number of Housing Association homes built is still low at some 30,000 a year. And private housebuilding is this year at its lowest level since 1923.
So why aren’t far more social houses being built? Tory (and New Labour) ideological objection to Council housing is certainly one reason. But the other is the cost of doing this amid savage cuts in a deep recession. But there’s a way out. Because economic recovery has faltered, the Bank of England is now proposing to pump another tranche of money (perhaps £25-50bn of ‘quantitative easing’) into the economy to kickstart the recovery again. But rather than handing it to the banks who in the past have used the previous £200bn to shore up their own balance sheets while at the same time reducing lending to the real economy, the money should be fed instead into a major new hosebuilding drive. A triple whammy – creating jobs, building needed housing, and giving the economy a real boost.