You end up with hopelessly simplistic policy if you don’t listen to the front line, says Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist
Struggle to be heard
Have you ever wondered how politicians dream up their housing cure-alls? My suspicions were confirmed the other day, on meeting an academic who is a leading light in the housing policy world.
‘Usually, the policies don’t come from us,’ she told me, ‘but governments come to us when things start to go wrong.’ The big ideas, it seems, are dreamt up by the party ‘policy wonks’, bright back-room boys, often fresh from Oxbridge with a suitcase of shiny ideologies. Pressure groups, think tanks and lobbyists are influential as well.
No prizes for guessing where the ideas never come from - yes, that’s right, housing officers. Now why is that? Are we assumed to lack perspective? Does the grey reality of our daily grind cloud out those blue-sky thoughts?
On the ground
The fact is that there is no lack of critical thinking in our office. We actually do the job that the wonks only imagine they understand. We know the real and not the theoretical impact of benefits cuts and huge right to buy discounts, to name but two cherished policies.
You can be sure, though, that our views would be ignored by Cameron and Clegg, even if we had a conduit to express them. As they would have been by their Labour predecessors and all previous governments. We are public officials and actively - contractually - discouraged from expressing opinions.
But without input from the front line, we get top-down policy making by people who see the world as they believe it ought to be. They impose their vision on tenants and housing workers alike. What kind of policy do you get, by refusing to listen to the front line? You get initiatives driven by aspiration and ideology. These ideas are hopelessly simplistic.
Yes, there are focus groups.
Yes, the consultants come and talk to us - sometimes - about what we do. They always bring their agenda along, though. If what we say gets used at all, it is to validate their own policy ideas. What doesn’t fit, isn’t heard.
Asked a while back about the number one priority for housing in our area, I told a consultant that we desperately needed more affordable council housing. There were figures to prove it and a waiting list which, if you laid the applicants end to end, would be literally a mile long.
But no, that wasn’t the answer - because we would be encouraging the dependency culture, she said. I asked if she had talked to any of the people on the waiting list, heard their stories, their struggles, their complex and often desperate housing histories. No, she hadn’t done that. She knew that many people were looking for housing and that was enough.
I don’t usually throw things at the television, not even at Jeremy Clarkson. I was tempted the other night though, when a smugly suited man from a think tank told me that social housing was the cause of social problems, not a cure for them. Once again the dependency culture is to blame. We have made it too easy for folk to idle their time away watching daytime TV.
The evidence for this view, as I understand it, is pitifully thin.
Of course some families have been out of work for generations and it is true that our benefits system creates perverse incentives. But these people didn’t create the system - the policy wonks did. Attempting to link the creation of a so-called ‘underclass’ with social housing is disingenuous. If the market doesn’t provide housing, then what are people supposed to do? Live in shanty towns?
Unlike the stars of Channel 4’s Shameless - probably the nearest the back-room boys get to the world of social housing - most of the housing
needy are people in desperate situations who just need a chance in life.
They may be unable to afford their private let, or they may see the mortgage default coming and have no way of avoiding it. Such people struggle not to present as homeless and they hate the thought of dependency on the state.
No way out
Recently I advised a man in an averagely expensive private let, a single parent with three young children. Even maximising his benefits left him barely £400 a month to live, once his household bills were paid.
That’s £400 for four people, food, clothing, bus fares, and everything else. He could pay half as much rent in a council house but we don’t have one to give him. He is low priority and will never be offered a tenancy.
So, here is a hard-working, responsible individual, bringing up three children and holding down a job. Without relatives to look after the children he would be forced out of work, because the child care would be too pricey. He is struggling as it is. And now he is going to have to struggle harder because his local housing allowance is to be cut. Not an unusual story, in our part of the world.
There are lazy people in social housing as in every tenure. Homeowners may be lucky enough to have an income from a pension or trust fund that allows a life of idleness. Laziness isn’t the prerogative of the working classes.
It is time that housing officers started making their views known. Perhaps we could begin by setting up a ‘Campaign to Reject Appalling Policies’. The acronym speaks for itself.
Inside Housing’s anonymous columnist is a senior housing officer