Posted by: Jules Birch26/04/2011
An opinion poll about fairness, poverty and welfare reform has some alarming implications for anyone with an interest in social housing.
The poll by the influential free-market think-tank Policy Exchange has already made headlines on the basis of its support for workfare and benefit sanctions but two more questions have a lot to say about what’s on its agenda for housing.
It asked respondents to agree or disagree with two propositions:
- People should not be offered council houses that are worth more than the average house in their local authority - 73% agree, 15% disagree and 12% don’t know
- People should not be offered council housing in expensive areas - 60% agree, 28% disagree and 13% don’t know.
Those seem like pretty convincing majorities and, whether you break down the answers by region, voting intention, age, housing tenure, class, most people agreed with both statements.
Support for not offering council housing in expensive areas was lowest among Labour voters (47% agreed, 40% disagreed), in Scotland (46% to 38%) and among social housing tenants (43% to 39%) - but it was still support.
This is of course just a poll, not a manifesto, but it’s entirely in keeping with the way that the coalition has justified cuts in the local housing allowance and caps on total benefit entitlement in the name of fairness to the average working family.
And other results in the poll, on benefit sanctions and the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, are not just in keeping with David Cameron’s comments about incapacity benefit before Easter but also the abandoned plans to cut housing benefit by 10% for anyone unemployed for more than a year.
But I wonder what the result would have been if the pollsters had asked housing professionals for their opinion.
My guess is that there would be some support for the first proposition on homes worth more than the average. However, most people would also point out the obvious practical problems with using a narrow classification like council houses as a proxy for all of social housing, shared equity and shared ownership and with using what happens to local house prices as a measure of ‘fairness’ in the social sector.
But what about the second? Could housing professionals really support the idea of not offering social housing in expensive areas? Of completing the social cleansing begun by cuts in housing benefit in the private rented sector?
I guess and hope not. But the very fact that I am asking myself the question is an indication of just how far the idea of ‘fairness’ has been appropriated by people promoting market-based solutions.
Policy Exchange is the most influential of all the right-wing think tanks, with a great track record of promoting ideas that end up becoming Conservative party policy. Its most recent success was a proposal on turning empty homes but radical ideas such as the ‘equitisation’ of housing associations are also on its agenda.
Those of us who disagree have to do a much better job of defining what’s fair and what’s not fair about housing policy and of communicating it to the politicians and the voters to stand any chance of competing with what’s looking like the final leg on the journey from council housing to social housing to welfare housing.
One good place to start is the latest blog on the housing benefit cuts by Bristol academic Alex Marsh and his argument that ‘we’re lacking a strong, coherent statement of why the direction the government appears to be taking is folly’.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context