Sunday, 01 March 2015

Opportunity knocks

From: Inside edge

What’s housing got to do with social mobility? Not much, according to the new opportunities white paper

Housing gets just nine mentions in 108 pages and one new policy - a £15 million new communities fund to support the work of the Homes and Communities Agency and 10 local authority pilot programmes.

Contrast that with yesterday’s report of the Social Mobility Commission (sponsored by the Lib Dems). Housing gets 54 mentions in 85 pages and is recognised as one of six key drivers.

‘Being in social housing as a child increases the risk of multiple disadvantage in adulthood and being in social housing as a young adult increases the risk of multiple disadvantage later,’ it argues.

‘This association holds in relation to health, education, self-efficacy as well as economic disadvantage.  Such an association is not inevitable: longitudinal analysis shows that the disadvantages of growing up in social housing have increased with the growth of owner occupation, suggesting that it is not social housing per se which is disadvantageous but its relative status in the housing market.’

The commission calls for a new target to end overcrowding in rented accommodation by 2020 and steps to make housing more affordable including giving greater priority to more social rented accommodation. 

And yet the white paper also contains something that could make a huge difference to all public authorities dealing with housing (and maybe even housing associations too if they fail to preserve their public but not public, private but not private status).

‘We will consider legislating to make clear that  tackling socio-economic disadvantage and narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds is a core function of key public services,’ it says. In the Guardian Polly Toynbee calls it ‘Labour’s biggest idea in 11 years’ while the Standard reports that one Cabinet minister describes it as ‘socialism in one clause’.

It remains to be seen whether such a duty will ever be implemented as part of the Equalities Bill but what if it was? 

Take the right to buy. Does it enhance social mobility - it has enabled millions of tenants to buy their homes - or stall it by reducing the stock of affordable rented homes?

Or schools admissions policies. Surely they widen gaps in outcomes by allowing parents to buy homes in the catchment areas of the best schools? The Social Mobility Commission advocates admissions ballots to reduce segregation (a recommendation immediately rejected by the Lib Dems). 

Or the whole debate about secure tenancies. Would abandoning them for new tenants promote mobility for some by making them more independent and aspirational or reduce mobility for others by removing a secure base to look for work.

Or Treasury policies that have increased the threshold for inheritance tax and reinforced the fact that the only first-time buyers able to access the housing market are those with help from their families.

And what about policy as a whole? Despite the recent fall in house prices, the gap between home owners and social tenants has grown exponentially over the last 11 years. None of the laudable things that the government has done on decent homes, sure start or community regeneration can disguise that.  

More radical New Labour thinkers like Alan Milburn (newly returned to the government fold as an adviser on social mobility) once believed that the answer was to extend the right to buy and promote yet more home ownership. ‘We are just scratching the surface,’ he said in a 2003 lecture. ‘You only have to look across the Atlantic to see what could be done. US government-sponsored enterprise companies have helped 58 million low- and moderate-income families buy their own homes.’

Five years and millions of sub-prime foreclosures later that agenda seems dead in the water. What will take its place?

Readers' comments (1)

  • What people need is access to decent affordable secure homes. If as a Government you’re incapable of delivering that, then you need to find some other gobshite discourse within which this failure can be hidden. The empty rhetoric of “choice” now having run its course (the reality for many of the neediest households being that you still have to accept the first reasonable offer that comes up, except that now the burden is on you to chase the offers) the Government’s next brilliant initiative is to promote “social mobility”. In exactly the same way, the realities of poverty have been successively concealed in the discourses of “deprivation” and then “exclusion”. The problem with “social mobility” is that it takes for granted the radical unequal distribution of wealth and power that structures society, and simply values equal opportunity to be unequal. True, it is a disgrace that any individual should be condemned to a life of poverty on the minimum wage simply because of their social origins, but then again what is a good reason for condemning someone to such a life? The emptiness of this ambition is well demonstrated by Jules Birch’s well-made closing question. Exactly what measurable outputs and achievements does a commitment to “social mobility” actually generate? I can think of one very straightforward one relating to housing; in overcrowded households children lack the space and privacy to concentrate on homework or pursue similar interests, and on inadequate estates they lack the opportunities for safe and creative social play that complements education. There’s a barrier to social mobility right there, but I doubt that’s what the Government wants to hear about because that would generate concrete measurable achievements in terms of households and space standards. No, what they will want to discuss is things like “aspiration” and “achievement” and “excellence” and “celebrating success” (and people like me in turn will be accused of “talking down success” and seeking to “deprive people of opportunities”), all of which in the end just promotes the same old myths that poverty is the fault of the poor, whether through fecklessness (the undeserving poor: a failure to take up the “opportunities” created by the Government) or vulnerability (the deserving poor: those too ill or feeble to succeed).

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