Daily Archives: July 9, 2009

Heaven waits here at my door

Expanding slightly on a point I made earlier this week at the Pickled Politics blog. There’s something a bit puzzling in the recent research telling us that immigrants aren’t “jumping the housing queue”. From here; “Just 11% of new arrivals get help with housing – almost all of them asylum seekers. But after five years, when many immigrants are able to get residency and become entitled to government help, one in six live in social housing – exactly the same proportion as those who were born in Britain.

But surely if 11% of new arrivals are going straight into social housing, then they are ‘jumping the queue’. They might really really need to jump the queue because there’s no way they can live anywhere else as they don’t have the right to work, but they are still newly arrived at the queue, and going to the front of it. Similarly someone in situation x who has been in the country for five years is ‘jumping the queue’ if they get housed when someone who is in situation marginally-better-than-x who has been on the waiting list for six years doesn’t.

The reason that sounds strange is that the housing queue isn’t a queue at all in the sense most (well, alright, some) people understand say a Tesco queue – it’s more of a throng from among whom the cashier occasionally picks someone to get served who looks like they have lots of shopping and seems to be getting tired. It’s not a sedate English line of people taking their turn, it’s a triage ward of angry people with needs of varying urgency, all clamouring to be seen, and resenting anyway who arrives after them but is seen ahead of them. Ironically I suppose it’s a bit like a ladder.

For as long as we say “it’s a queue”, or even worse, “a waiting list”, then the complaint “but I was here first” will resonate, however much research the IPPR and CEHR do. It is in my view a necessary part of the definition of a queue that if you wait for a sufficient length of time, you will get to the front of it. That’s not how social housing works. In any case I incline towards the view that most of this is a distraction from the real issue – not enough housing for the number of people who live here, or at least not in the same places as the jobs. Governments could do a number of things to alleviate this problem. All of them have advantages and drawbacks which I don’t think I need to enumerate.

  • Build more housing, both by allowing local authorities to do that (getting there!) where the funding from the private sector has dried up, and also by taking on the “pickle rural England” lobby and accept that many market towns and villages need to grow to become viable – and encouraging housebuilding companies to build houses that look like they belong in their context rather than uniformly bland housing estates which could be in any settlement in any part of Britain.
  • Limit the growth of the population until infrastructure has caught up. At risk of failing tests of economic growth and international obligations, the Government could find ways of reducing immigration (or indeed encouraging and facilitating emigration – plenty of people still have hopes of a better life in roomier countries like Australia, Canada, etc!)
  • Move more jobs through changes in taxation and investment to places where houses are available. There are drawbacks to this and the South-East already feels hard done by, but it remains a strange state of affairs when modestly sized houses in small towns in the South of England can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, while similarly sized houses in the Pennines have been bulldozed for lack of willing occupants at almost any price (as opposed to as part of specific regeneration schemes).
  • Force pensioners to take in lodgers. I jest only slightly, since there is a real issue in our society with many pensioners living in houses they can no longer really afford or manage to maintain, while younger people want to move away from their family homes whether for work or study or greater independence, but can’t afford the cost of housing. Some Councils do run services where old and young people in those situations can be matched up, giving the older person help around the house and a little extra income, and the younger person nicer accommodation at a lower cost than they would otherwise be able to acquire. We could provide a little extra help by allowing them to keep their single person discount for council tax, to alleviate not only the financial consequences, but also the burden of bureaucracy.

Those would all be honest options for discussion. What I think it’s dishonest to do is to shift the blame onto the allocation system or individuals, whether because they are from abroad or because they are Britons and resent their aspirations going unmet. Speaking of hypocrisy, a failed asylum seeker can’t get housing help from the local Council because they have “no recourse to public funds”, but if they have children and those children might end up in a vulnerable situation if they aren’t helped, the Council has to find them housing under the terms of the Children Act. If that wasn’t a mad system enough, it means that in two-tier areas the County Council, which isn’t a housing authority, has to find them housing, because it is a children’s authority. Got that?

Right, I’m going for a drink.