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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Health & Social CareTeacher

£100 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Health & Social Care T...

RE Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Temporary Teacher of RE require...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: PSHE Teacher required in Devon - Star...

SEN Teacher (Primary)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: SEN Primary Teacher required Devon

Day In a Page

Read Next

The daily catch-up: fathers looking after children, World Cup questions and Nostradamus

John Rentoul

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice