Expensive homes for wealthy people

What’s new in the housing world this week? What have we learnt? The primary lesson so far would seem to be that rich people really don’t like living next to poor people. They’d rather the poor, and even the middling sorts, made themselves scarce and freed up the space for a few more members of the moneyed classes to move the average income of the neighbourhood up a notch or two.

Hold the front page.

Of course, the message wasn’t quite as crudely expressed as that. Perish the thought.

On the contrary, what we need is a publication to make the case for clearing the poor out of expensive neighbourhoods by wielding all the tools of credible analysis – references to academic studies, research evidence, opinion polling data – and adopting quite a sophisticated rhetorical strategy in an attempt to persuade readers that this is the only rational way forward.

Step forward the Policy Exchange and its latest contribution to the wonderfully wonky world of think tankery Ending expensive social tenancies.

It doesn’t matter if the way the evidence is used and interpreted is questionable. Or indeed if some of the evidence itself is highly dubious. Let’s not worry too much about providing a plausible explanation for why we find social tenants living in high value properties – instead let’s provide a travesty of an account of social housing policy in the 1970s and almost entirely ignore processes of gentrification. Let’s consistently equivocate between high value properties and properties that are “expensive”. Let’s also equivocate between cash subsidies and economic subsidy in a way that allows the unwary reader to form the view that vast sums of taxpayers’ money are being handed over in order to allow people to live in palatial surroundings. That will stoke the fires of indignation nicely.

None of this fudging will matter just so long as the report can be presented as if it were a robust study for long enough to dominate the news on a slow news day. It will not doubt be welcomed by the relevant Minister as justifying existing policy directions. Indeed, the conclusion that we need to clear out the poor may be described by an incautious politician as “blindingly obvious”. Some useful ammunition arriving just in time for conference season? Lovely.

But let’s approach the issue with some circumspection. Let’s not focus on the desirability of spatially concentrating wealth. That would be far too transparent. It would be a little crass. Let’s instead construct an argument that increased social segregation is, in fact, in the interests of the poor. That works for me.

Look at the length of those waiting lists. Shocking! Look at the polling “evidence”. It shows the public believe people shouldn’t be “given” expensive social housing in expensive areas. And when we say expensive we’ll focus on the million pound properties in order to generate indignation. But then define expensive as anything above the average. And have you seen the prices in the shops locally? Good grief, they’re so expensive. It’s so unreasonable of us to oblige benefit recipients to shop in Waitrose. And let’s not pretend that there is any genuine social mixing going on between those who are paying for million pound properties out of their own pockets and those who have been allocated social housing properties in the same street. They live in different social worlds.

Frankly, when all’s said and done, it’s a mercy to the poor if we banished them from such areas. We need to release them in to the wild so they can frolic in low value neighbourhoods with their own kind.

The slight snag here is that in order to make the policy even superficially desirable we’re going to have to advocate building thousands of new social housing units nearby. People might think it slightly bizarre that a right wing Think Tank is being endorsed by a right wing Housing Minister in its view that we need much more social housing, seeing as policy for so long has been directed at trying to minimise its role. Never mind. At least we can suggest working with a generous interpretation of “nearby” – let’s say within 30 miles. So there is little chance that we’ll have to look at it if it’s built.

Furthermore, we’ll be forced to acknowledge that in order to get all those new houses built the planning system would need to be reformed, as would the house building industry. The resources from sales will need to be recycled into new housing to meet the promised target for the volume of new properties – and built to better standards no less – to help all those poor, poor people on the waiting list.

Clearly, there would need to be a central mechanism for redistributing the proceeds from sales around the country. So we can ensure that the new homes were constructed in properly low value areas. There would therefore have to be a significant role for top down direction of the whole process. The need for central direction is obvious for other reasons. Social landlords already have asset management strategies. There are regular sales of high value properties in order to fund new construction as part of that process. But clearly that isn’t enough and it isn’t happening fast enough. So we need to override even further any notion that housing associations are independent organisations and completely disrupt their business plans by forcing disposal of high value properties using a relatively crude formula-based approach. We know we’re supposed to be in an era of localism, but you can take that principle too far. Frankly we don’t trust them to do the right thing, what with local authorities all being infested with mad left-wing ideologues.

If we were serious about implementing the policy in full – ensuring that the new low value social rented housing appears as the old high value social housing is sold off – then of course we’d cautiously suggest that reforms of planning, the housebuilding industry, the way in which the Treasury persists in siphoning off capital receipts generated locally, and resource distribution mechanisms would all have to be actioned and in place prior to starting the programme of enforced sales. That would ensure the success of the overall approach.

But let’s not dwell on these issues for too long. There’s an urgent need for action. The economy needs reviving – that’s an argument that plays well, let’s invoke that – and we need more houses built – we all agree on that as well. So we urge the Minister to press ahead with this policy with haste. Let’s get it up and running now, this year. Send out an order that it should be so. Those local authorities and housing associations need to get selling. For the good of the country and all those poor people who need houses.

Never mind that pressing ahead with the policy now, without any of the preconditions for success in place, will result in the high value properties being sold, the Treasury taking the money, and very little new housing being built to replace the stock that was lost. At least we’ll have got the poor people out of expensive neighbourhoods.

Did we mention that that was what we were trying to achieve all along?

Image: © Greenrobyn – Fotolia.com

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  1. Alex – a great read. The only simple issue I thought could be argued more forcefully was the point made by the Director of Policy Exchange after the ‘research’ was published in Telegraph Online. He said as a premise that why should a tenant live in Kensington at the taxpayers “expense.”

    Given that we (the taxpayer) invest £1.2bn pa in social housing yet get a return of £5.3bn (the reduction in benefit paid to SRS than at PRS rates) then there is no taxpayer expense at all, it is a taxpayer saving which according to figures used by Shapps to denigrate Prescott would be £162pa less in tax paid per taxpayer.

    Joe Public like simple arguments. No one on benefit should get more than the average ‘hardworking’ family saw the OBC resoundingly applauded and liked. Yet when Newham to Stoke emerged as its first (inevitable) consequence Joe Public was outraged and aptly sums up the point.

    Different audiences of course, I accept that. What angers me is why the housing sector always reacts and is never proactive in these matters. Imagine a report coming out saying the old council house model was the most economically advantage to the country (the £1.2bn – £5.3bn) and government having to react after not having the first-move advantage!

    Sorry must be time for my anti-naivety pills again!!