Blair tries to end North's housing slide

THE GOVERNMENT is to place housing at the centre of its social agenda in an attempt to redress a crisis of confidence in low-cost housing and the slump in property values in inner cities of the North.

The decision to give housing the same level of attention as health, education and crime prevention comes as new research by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows that 89 per cent of people surveyed hoped that within 20 years their children or grandchildren would own their own homes. Only two per cent were content that their children would rent from a local authority. Forty per cent of respondents did not think councils should run social housing at all.

Responding to the findings, the Housing minister Hilary Armstrong will today launch a Forum on the Future of Social Housing, intended to encourage new thinking on the subject and to develop a 20-year plan to revitalise poor housing. The forum's results are expected to influence the White Paper on the matter which the Government has pledged to introduce before the next election.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, last week defended the performance of the public sector in providing "affordable and good-quality housing". But in an interview with The Independent, Mrs Armstrong struck a more critical note. "We need to take seriously what people are saying about where they live, their problems and aspirations," she said. "Simply building more council houses isn't the answer."

The IPPR's research indicates that occupier ownership is now a strongly held aspiration across all social groups. Some 79 per cent of people questioned said that they would advise young couples to buy their home on a mortgage, with only 5 per cent favouring the option of renting from a council, 3 per cent from a housing association and 3 per cent from a private landlord.

Mrs Armstrong admitted that Labour councils have tended to treat housing problems in isolation and to concentrate too heavily on the number of homes provided, rather than on the quality of life on the estates. "There has been a tendency to see housing problems in a ghetto and not be sufficiently rigorous in the attention we dedicated to the public sector. There are huge problems across a number of areas. We've got to look at the detail of what is provided and where there are inadequacies."

The minister's remarks indicate the Government intends to step up reforms and encourage opt-outs from council administration in the form of tenant management schemes and transferring more properties to approved landlords.

Most worrying for a government intent on tackling social deprivation is the shift in who lives in council and social housing. In the mid-Seventies, a sizeable proportion of tenants were blue-collar workers on medium earnings. Today, the majority are the poor, the aged and single parents.

The survey results confirm social housing is seen largely as an option for those on low incomes. The Government hopes that marketing social homes in more flexible ways - possibly with differential rents from those on different incomes - will help create a broader mix of tenants. An Unpopular Housing Action Scheme has been set up within the Social Exclusion Unit in an attempt to revitalise estates with dubious reputations.

The IPPR's research gives some encouragement to the idea of creating mixed areas of owners and tenants to ensure a social mix. Two-thirds of those polled thought that local authority and housing association homes should be available to anyone who preferred to rent their own home and should not be restricted to low-earners. Mrs Armstrong said: "A lot of people would be happy to rent. It should not be an option only for those on low wages."

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