Christina Patterson: Why is social housing such a mess?

What started as a much-needed escape route from the slums that were, for decades, the working classes' only accommodation option, has become a racket
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The Independent Online

Entitlement, as David Cameron discovered last week, is not the preserve of a single social class. Sure, there are the bankers, who still proclaim their right to bonuses that would keep half the country's children in milk, and deficit-doubling bailouts every time they trip over a paving stone and break the economy. And sure, there are the Cleggerons, who eschewed the free milk (and the free education) in favour of pre-prep-school seminars on fine-tuning ripostes at PMQs. But there's another big chunk of the population that believes it has a right to something that other people don't: council tenants.

At a "Cameron Direct" event last week (which sounded as though it might be offering competitive rates in insurance, but actually involved more comic improvisation from our dear leader) the Prime Minister announced, with the same calm insouciance that characterised his pronouncements on the Janus-like properties of Pakistan, that council housing should no longer be granted "for life". "Maybe," he said casually, "in five or 10 years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won't need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector." It would, he added, be "a more flexible system". It would also, he said, probably "lead to quite a big argument".

It's a fair bet that not too many of Cameron's friends will have grown up in council houses. (Most of them appear to be in the Cabinet, and, as this paper revealed on Saturday, if Britain looked like its Government, about four million adults would have gone to Eton.) It's a fair bet, then, that Cameron may not have realised quite how big an argument this would be. The Lib Dems, desperate to prove that they're not the trophy wives they increasingly resemble, have had a mass hissy fit. Simon Hughes has dismissed Cameron's comments, slightly oddly, as a "prime ministerial idea". The liberal left press has been full of doom-laden prophecies about the ghettoes that will ensue.

But David Cameron is right. I'll say that again. David Cameron is right. He may not be right in his response to the problem, and he's certainly not right in his attack on housing benefit, which is desperately, cruelly, and just stupidly unfair, but he's right that it isn't fair for those people who landed the pass-the-parcel of a council flat to be guaranteed, whatever their circumstances, a home subsidised by the taxpayer for the rest of their life.

If council housing was ever fair, it certainly isn't now. What started as a much-needed escape route from the slums and Rachmanesque horrors that were, for decades, the working classes' only option for accommodation, has become a racket. And where once council estates were populated largely by working people on low incomes (people whose children, would, as soon as they were old enough, go "down the council" to be housed, too), they're now populated by some working people on low incomes, an awful lot of people who've never worked, and significant numbers of squatters and illegal sub-tenants.

Take my own council, Hackney. (If only, alas, you could take my own council, and swap it for something better.) In 1990 Bernard Crofton, Hackney Council's housing director, began an investigation into corruption in the council and found widespread evidence of illegal squatting and recruitment of staff with bogus qualifications. In a farcical series of events (which might give Cameron et al pause for thought as they flash their scalpels at the public sector) Crofton was sacked for racial discrimination, and then reinstated, and then, 12 years after the investigation started, at God knows what cost to those of us who actually paid our council tax, found guilty of thinking that "West Africans have a propensity to commit fraud". (Since an independent enquiry found that there were "professional fraudsters" and that many of these were West Africans, you can sort of see what led him down this route.)

I would love to be able to give you an update on Hackney Council's housing policy today, but my four phone calls to them all resulted in a request to send an email which wasn't answered. Instead, I'll tell you about Tower Hamlets. A friend of mine, the daughter of a hospital porter and a cleaner, grew up on an estate in Wapping. She and several of her siblings were all, in turn, housed by the council and, when offered the chance to buy their flats for £17,000, did so, and made a killing. Her brother didn't manage it, but he did make more money sub-letting his council flat while he was in prison than he has before or since.

According to a report published by the Audit Commission last year, housing tenancy fraud affects at least 50,000 council and housing association properties. There are 1.8 million people on the waiting list, and, once the housing benefit cap kicks in, there will be at least 750,000 more. Hundreds of thousands of council homes were sold off under Margaret Thatcher's "right to buy" scheme, but construction levels of social housing in the past 13 years have been the lowest since the Second World War. Put these factors together, add a private rental sector which, in London, at least, is often quadruple the cost of the subsidised sector, and a property market which, after years of boom and bust, but mostly boom, has turned bricks and mortar into a nice little earner that's now beyond the means of all but the rich, and you have what's technically known as a mess.

It isn't, for example, fair that my friends down the road were suddenly told that they, and their seven-year-old daughter, had to leave their rented flat because the landlord wanted to sell, and when they looked for a new one in the area, in order to keep their daughter at the local primary school, could find, for the £1,150 a month they were expecting to pay (out of their below-the-national-average salaries), only flats that were shabby and cramped. It isn't fair that they will never be able to save the money for a deposit to buy a flat, and are extremely unlikely to get a council flat, and so will always be subject to the whims of private landlords. And it isn't particularly fair that another friend's next-door neighbours on his council estate in Clapton (a Pakistani one side and a Turk the other), neither of which has done a single day's work in this country, have a secure tenancy for life.

And it isn't at all fair that those who were able to cobble together a few grand as a deposit (quite often with their parents' help) could climb on to that stairway to capitalist heaven, the housing ladder, while others who couldn't didn't, and now never will, and that those who did have been able to gaze at their walls and ceilings and see pound signs and pensions, as if the rocketing value of their nice little semi were in some way to their credit. But then we've all been indoctrinated with the myth of the "property-owning democracy", where the fetishisation of property is more important than a home.

I'd like to live in a country where there was no stigma attached to renting, and no virtue attached to ownership, and where housing was plentiful and rents were relatively cheap. But if we want lower rents, and less ludicrous house prices (if we want, in other words, to be more like much of Europe) then we have to build many more houses and we have to ditch our view of a mortgage as a scheme to get rich quick.

And if we want a fairer way to house our poorest residents then our entire system of social housing will have to undergo radical (and extremely expensive) reform. If you chuck people out, and they can't manage, you have to pay to put them in a B&B. Unless, that is, you bring back the workhouse, or you shoot them. Well, Dave, good luck with that. From where I'm sitting (in lovely Hackney), it's hard to see how a big argument, and a big deficit, in a big society which actually means a very small state, won't lead to some very big problems indeed.