Leading article: Mr Duncan Smith deserves a hearing

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Day In a Page

Read Next

If I were Prime Minister: I'd shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid

Marina Warner

Sorry Britain, but nobody cares about your little election – try being relevant next time

Emanuel Sidea
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power