All posts from: August 2012
I was away last week, so missed the publication of Alex Morton’s latest Policy Exchange report proposing that high value social housing should be sold off in order to fund new homes. But my local newspaper, the Cambridge Evening News, phoned me for a comment and my immediate reaction was that this proposal would be socially divisive and a step towards a U.S. model of social housing.
I admit that I like some of Alex Morton’s work, in particular his proposals that we should push out the green belt and build a new generation of garden cities, but I think his latest idea is just silly season nonsense. That’s the trouble with working for a think tank - you need to keep thinking new thoughts, otherwise you cease to have any purpose. But I get the impression that Alex spends much of his time in a darkened room crunching statistics and rarely ventures out into the real world.
I’m glad to see that Jules Birch has already demolished Alex’s report so I won’t go over the same ground. Instead, to highlight the absurdity of the Policy Exchange proposal, I invite you to join me on a short walk south from King’s Cross station. It’s a route I frequently take into central London, or, in its shorter version to the CIH office in Gray’s Inn Road. You leave the bustle of Euston Road and enter Argyle Square, once notorious for its prostitution and drug dealing, but now a pleasant oasis. At the south-west corner is the 230-home Hillview estate, a series of fine red-bricked tenement blocks with internal courtyards built by the East End Dwellings Company in the 1890s. When I “managed” the estate in the 1980s it was full of squatters and short-lifers and there were coppers (for boiling clothes, not policemen) on the balconies and baths in the kitchens, but it is has been handsomely restored by One Housing Group. Hillview faces Cromer Street, where Kenneth Williams grew up. It is flanked by several fine post-war Camden Council blocks, all recently renovated and providing safe, secure and decent affordable housing. Cromer Street is a diverse and lively street with a pub and several useful corner shops selling groceries and newspapers. Then we cross Judd Street into Leigh Street where the “Black Books” bookshop can be seen, a few doors down from the North Sea fish bar, which Arthur Scargill patronised during the miners’ strike. We turn left into Marchmont Street, the bustling hub of this northern part of Holborn. It is what the Americans would call a real neighbourhood, with pubs, sandwich bars, a healthfood store, a launderette, a hardware store, the famous “Gays the Word “bookshop and a range of useful independent shops, although the fishmonger has sadly closed down. At its southern end, next to the community garden, is Brunswick Square, a modernist shopping centre with ziggurat style council flats above. Here is the Renoir cinema showing the latest independent films. Nearby there are many old Peabody tenement blocks, all providing much-needed affordable housing. Walk south into Queen’s Square and you eventually come to Red Lion Street and Red Lion Square, another backstreet neighbourhood of independent shops surrounded by well-maintained Camden Council blocks.
Our walk ends, appropriately enough, at the head office of the National Housing Federation on the far side of Red Lion Square. On our way we have passed dozens of social housing blocks containing thousands of flats. In fact, just over 50 percent of Kings Cross ward and the Holborn and Covent Garden ward consist of social housing properties. Walk through these streets at the weekend and you will find them thronged with people, the shops and pubs all busy. Compare and contrast this to a similar walk through the backstreets of Belgravia or Knightsbridge at the weekend and you will find empty streets and blank-fronted houses. These are sterile neighbourhoods compared to the places on our Holborn walk.
The point I am making is this; every single one of the social housing flats on our walk through Kings Cross and Holborn would be valued above the median price of £290,000 set by Policy Exhchange for London, and therefore put up for sale when they became empty. Entire neighbourhoods would be sold off to private buyers over a period of time and who would buy? As this article shows, the inner London property market is driven by overseas buyers, people who are hardly likely to live in their properties full-time, patronise their local stores or contribute to the economic and social life of their communities in the way that social housing tenants do. A massive disposal of high-value properties would cause irreversible harm to some of the most vibrant communities in London. High value social housing like that in Kings Cross and Holborn should be seen as the crown jewels in our social housing portfolio, bringing life and diversity to our inner cities and acting as a bulwark against absentee owners and sterile neighbourhoods. Moving people on lower incomes to poorer districts represents another step in the Americanisation of our social housing and we should resist it at all costs.
In case you missed it, the Conservative Home website launched an extraordinary attack upon the Chartered Institute of Housing this week.
Edited by Hammersmith and Fulham Councillor Harry Phibbs, the article claimed that the Institute’s £10 million annual income comes “overwhelmingly” from the taxpayer – in conference fees, membership subscriptions and other forms of public support. The anonymous writer highlights some of the allegedly controversial courses that the CIH offers – on emotional intelligence, advocating mediation rather than eviction for troublesome tenants and, shock horror, pushing the “intrusive and divisive” diversity monitoring agenda. The article suggests that housing officers should attend these courses in their own time and at their own expense.The CIH is also accused of being highly political, attacking the government over welfare reform and making the “case for more state housing – for more subsidy, dependency, drab standardised egalitarian conformity.”
The CIH chief executive, Grainia Long, has provided a spirited response to the Conservative Home article.
But I’m puzzled by this. Why is the CIH being singled out for attention when many other professional bodies working in the public sector receive similar support in terms of training, conferences, subscriptions and consultancy? The RIBA, RTPI, RICS are all partly supported by public funds. Is this part of a wider attack upon social housing, a brick-by-brick dismantling of the principles and ethos of our sector, or am I being paranoid? Is Harry Phibbs just flying a kite that is not representative of Conservative Party views or does this represent grass-roots opinion - a view that the days of state-sponsored housing are numbered? Either way, it shows that we need to re-double our efforts to get our message across to the wider public and to politicians in particular.
If you haven’t responded to the CLG “Pay to Stay” consultation, I suggest you do so because it may save you a lot of unnecessary hassle in the long run. The consultation paper is a wonderful example of the civil service struggling to interpret the prejudices and half-baked opinions of a minister. You can almost hear the civil servant who drafted the paper muttering “why me?” as they struggle with the complexities and absurdities of the subject.
In brief, Grant Shapps thinks it’s a scandal that people like Bob Crow and Frank Dobson live in “subsidised” social housing and he want them out, or if they won’t go he wants their rents increased to market levels. “This is an issue of principle and fairness,” says the paper. CLG estimates that up to 6,000 households in England have a combined income over £100,000 per annum, and between 12,000 and 34,000 earn £60,000 or more. Subsidised housing is worth around £3,600 per annum for every tenant.
The proposals raise a number of fundamental questions about the purpose and scope of social housing, not least the argument about what is or is not “subsidised” housing. Steve Hilditch at Red Brick has covered the key objection to Pay to Stay, namely the huge bureaucratic exercise that would be required to assess the incomes of every tenant. The CLG admits that, “Linking rents to income would be breaking new ground. Our present view is that primary legislation will be required to enable landlords to access tenant income data if this policy is to be fully effective.” There are also issues raised in the paper about the potential handback of social housing grant and the fact that registered providers could charge no more than 80% of market rents without falling foul of charity rules. So it’s a tricky issue.
I accept that the proposal has the potential to free up some homes and to raise additional income for landlords (up to £1.2 billion per annum if you accept the government’s very best estimates of the numbers involved, although this is still a piffling amount in comparison to the housing beneefit bill).
But there are several other objections to the Pay to Stay proposals, quite apart from the bureaucracy involved in checking the income of every tenant. Firstly, I would guess that high earners are likely to be long-standing tenants who have probably paid their rent, been no trouble to their landlord, improved their properties, carried out their own repairs and paid for the historic costs of their property many times over, so the notion that they are “subsidised” is questionable. Second, linking rents to income is yet another attack upon the principles of social housing and will eventually lead to the Americanisation and ghettoisation of social housing, something we should resist at all costs - we want diversity and mixed income communities in our housing stock. I’m no fan of Bob Crow or Lee Jasper but I quite like the notion that these people are happy to live in social housing and contribute to their communities. Third, this is yet another example of making policy on the basis of exceptional cases, which is always a bad idea. Fourth, if we want to have an honest debate about “principle and fairness” let’s discuss the far greater subsidies that the wealthy enjoy in areas such as land ownership or the arts, or the damage done to our society by the greed and incompetence of bankers. As always, this seems to be the classic conjurer’s trick of trying to divert attention from the big issue onto a smaller detail.
If the government really wants to encourage richer tenants out of social housing this is not the way to do it. It’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut. A more subtle approach would be to appeal to the moral conscience of high earners and allow them to make their own decisions. You will need to respond to the consultation by the 12th September if you want to avoid another daft policy being imposed upon you.