Friday, February 08, 2008

House Points: Lose your job, lose your council house

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

I wrote this on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday the Guardian published the first instalment of a new weekly blog by Bridget Fox, the prospective Lib Dem candidate for Islington South and Finsbury. She wrote in stikingly similar terms.

It was nice to see that a) we Lib Dems sometimes agree and b) that some of what I learnt about housing 20 years ago is still relevant.

Ruler law

What is council housing for? For Liberals it exists because the private sector cannot fully satisfy the need for rented accommodation. It’s hard to reconcile the tenant’s desire for security with the landlord’s right to reclaim his property. And owning lots of houses allows councils to offer new property at affordable rents.

But there has always been a strand in Labour thinking that likes council housing because it gives the state control over tenants. Caroline Flint, for instance, is outraged that people are simply given the keys and allowed to get on with their lives. So her threat to evict unemployed tenants deemed not to be seeking work hard enough come as no surprise.

The figures she quotes to support this bizarre policy are that there are 2.6 million people of working age living in social housing and about 1.4 million of them are unemployed. But the problem is that, as our American cousins would put it, she is looking at things backasswards.

Take Market Harborough. The last council houses to be completed here are in Jubilee Gardens. The street got its name because they were finished in 1977 -- the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

When I chaired Harborough District Council’s housing management subcommittee a decade later (and public life offers few greater prizes), the lack of new building and long waiting list meant that anyone given a council house was likely to have social or health problems.

So it’s not that council accommodation makes people unemployed: it’s that unemployed people are more likely to be given council accommodation.

It is hard to believe the government will take Flint’s idea further, but it does emphasise how the relationship between citizen and state has changed. Once we assumed that the state was there to protect us: today its role seems to be more to keep us up to scratch.

Unemployment is now seen as a matter of individual delinquency, caused by a refusal to acquire the right skills. Keynesian ideas of demand management have long been forgotten and what regional policy we have, thanks to the 2012 Olympics, concentrates spending in the prosperous South East.

The state is no longer a benign landlord. It acts more like a housemaster in a progressive borstal.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was a civil servant. I recall working on various Labour and Tory policy iniciatives to help the unemployed to get work by first enabling them to find somewhere decent to live. New Labour certainly turns old ideas upside down.

One of the reasons why these inciatives made little progress was that the actual landlords of social housing were bodies such as Harborough District Council and Housing Associations, not Whitehall. Council and Housing Association priorities were and are helping families who really need help. I rely on Harborough DC and its doughty colleagues to stop Caroline Flint turning families into the street; and to prevent us going back to the worst of 19th. Century practice of throwing out tenants who offend against the master's or the mistress's predjudices.