Leading article: The end of a pernicious myth

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An independent survey of social housing allocation explodes the myth that new immigrants jump the queue for social housing. The research, commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, found that less than 2 per cent of social housing tenants had arrived in the UK within the past five years, while the proportion of those born abroad living in social housing was almost identical to the proportion of social tenants born in the UK.

Overall, the figures show a remarkable degree of fairness, suggesting that local authorities deserve bouquets rather than brickbats. They also supply something that has been sorely lacking from public discussion about social housing: real, quantifiable evidence to counter the falsehoods, which have been allowed to circulate, unchallenged, for much too long.

How far the findings will be believed, of course, particularly in the places where the myth is most entrenched, is another matter. The report notes that sales of social housing mean that many who are renting privately may be mistaken for social tenants, while key-worker schemes may similarly give the impression that new arrivals are disproportionately fast-tracked into subsidised housing. Identifying such misconceptions, though, can only be the start of what will be an uphill struggle to convince a largely sceptical public.

There are two underlying problems here, both needing remedies. The first is the acute shortage of affordable housing in many parts of the country. This, plus the perceived advantages of such housing – low rents, security of tenure, and, in time, the right to buy – means that resentment towards the recipients is almost inevitable.

The other problem, and a serious one, relates to communication. The Government and local councils between them were largely silent, while the British National Party was able to capitalise on local prejudices and fears. The recent suggestion by Gordon Brown that local authorities might in future give more priority to local people, who had been on the waiting list for a long time, made matters worse by seeming to imply that there might have been unfairness. Now that ample evidence exists to the contrary, ministers must not be shy about using it.

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