The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has caused a firestorm by suggesting that unemployed council tenants might move house in order to find work. For many, his words were an unacceptable reprise of Norman Tebbit's call to "get on your bike" and definitive proof that the "nasty party" was back. Ed Balls, a contender for the Labour leadership, said the proposal was "profoundly unfair".
There are good reasons, however, why the ideas Mr Duncan Smith has mooted deserve more measured consideration than the knee-jerk rejection they mostly received. First, he was careful to avoid any hint of coercion. The word he used was incentives: incentives for people to move to a place where they were more likely to get a job, either because the unemployment rate was lower than where they were living or because they had skills that matched demand somewhere else.
His point was not that council tenants should be frogmarched to work – though there are probably some Conservatives who believe just that. It was that the privileges – as many waiting in vain for such accommodation would see them – of social housing can easily become a trap. With low rents (compared to market rates), complete security of tenure, and no possibility of qualifying for social housing elsewhere, someone who is unemployed has little option but to stay put.
The second reason why Mr Duncan Smith should be given more than the time of day is that the issues he has raised are well-known. Indeed, they were recognised by the previous government. The then Housing Secretary, Ruth Kelly, commissioned a report to answer three specific questions: how social housing could be used to create more mixed communities; how it could be run so as to encourage social mobility and employment; and how it could be made more responsive to the needs of a more geographically mobile workforce. The result was the Hills report of 2007, which hazarded solutions similar to those broached by Mr Duncan Smith. It was launched with much fanfare and then shelved.
Since then, the "ghettoisation" of many council estates has only become more acute, as local authorities continue to allocate their diminished stock of housing strictly according to social need. Expensive housing benefits are paid to low-earners to live in private rented accommodation, often far from their jobs, while many council tenants are now unemployed into the second and third generation. So secure is a council tenancy and so hard to obtain, that few ever move out. Opportunities to transfer to another area or exchange homes are ponderous and few and far between. The Government – and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, has associated the Liberal Democrats with the proposals – wants to end a situation where joblessness and council tenancies are mutually reinforcing.
Of course, there are drawbacks to this sort of change. As Professor Hills ventured in his report, security of tenure is something that may have to be sacrificed to mobility. This could mean higher rents, or even compulsory transfers, for those in properties deemed to be "under-occupied". Family-sized houses are in such short supply not just because there has been so little new building, but because people are entitled to stay in them long after grown-up children have flown. With houses so badly needed, it is right to ask whether this is just.
Given the current state of the economy, however, the more immediate question is where Mr Duncan Smith thinks the jobs are for his more mobile and motivated tenants. There are places with jobs that need doing and there are other places with surplus housing. For obvious reasons, though, the two rarely coincide. Unless the Government can somehow bring them together, many will feel they have a choice which is no choice: between an affordable home and a risky search for a foothold in the world of work.