Another night, another period of disturbed sleep. Today, rather than keep me awake until 4am, my body decided to wake me up at 4am. Well, it’s novel, at least.
It also means I get to see Hard Talk, one of the more interesting and more rarely seen programmes on the BBC. For those not aware of it, it is one of the only programmes I know of where a prominent individual is interviewed one-on-one for half an hour (or probably longer, as it seems to be edited).
Last night it was the turn of Frank Field, a rare commodity in the country in that he is both a Labour MP and also quite bright. Actually, that’s too mealy mouthed: as a Tory friend once noted, he’s probably forgotten more about pensions and welfare than most of us will ever know. The BBC have not published tonight’s interview on their website yet, sadly, but his 2004 outing is available.
The reason for interviewing Field is undoubtedly his recent report for Reform, the first in a series of six. This promises to be an interesting series, as Field was Minister for Welfare Reform in the first Blair government. Charged with 'thinking the unthinkable' about social security reform, he made the mistake of thinking he could also ‘say the unsayable’ rather than nodding politely and saying “Yes, Gordon”. A year after his appointment he resigned in frustration.
In what was generally an interesting interview, I was most struck by his support for Margaret Hodge’s comments about social housing. Hodge has been widely criticised for “perpetuat[ing] the myth that social homes are given to new immigrants coming to the UK at the expense of the indigenous population” and even for using the word ‘indigenous’ to distinguish between recent immigrants and people born in the UK. The latter comment is harsh; she was undoubtedly fishing for words in a mine-infested sea – had she used ‘native’ she would have been both correct and crucified. Immigration is now inseparable from race, and the debate suffers from the same tortuous linguistic manoeuvring that spawned the mocking expression “politically correct.”
It seems to me that there is a simple question of fact that underpins this debate, and which to my knowledge has never been satisfactorily answered, which is whether there is any truth in the suggestion that immigrants receive preference in the allocation of Social Housing. It should be fairly easy to check the rules and procedures applied by councils on the one hand, and conduct a statistical survey on the other. If Margaret Hodge is correct, then immigrants do receive preference, but only because their need is greater. Social Housing is a socialist concept, and each receives according to his need. If so, one can fairly easily imagine that a newly-arrived family might have greater need than a family that is already in situ, and which must have some accommodation, no matter how unsatisfactory.
Hodge’s suggestion was that the allocation of Social Housing should be guided by “different rules based on, for instance, length of residence, citizenship or national insurance contributions...” Frank Field’s comment on this was interesting. He asked whether anybody had ever asked recent immigrants how they would construct housing policy. Noting that in some areas it was members of the Bangladeshi community, which had originally immigrated to the UK forty years ago, that were now complaining that they were being displaced, he wondered whether they would not in fact favour a system that rewarded residency, citizenship and the existing community. If they planed to settle, they might favour a system that would in the future reward their commitment to the community. If they have played by the rules, goes the thinking, they deserve their fair share, their turn.
It’s not entirely daft, but in Labour circles it certainly suggests that he did not stop ‘thinking the unthinkable’ after he lost his ministerial salary.
Not being a socialist myself, I see this as a simple resource allocation problem, and I think I know who is causing it. Immigration is creating a demand for housing, as is longevity and shrinking household sizes. Overly restrictive planning regulations make it impossible to meet that demand; we are building about half the number of houses we need each year, which makes existing and new housing expensive (as you may have noticed). Successive socialist and dirigiste governments have responded by trying to manage and manipulate the housing market. The system is typical of the era in which it was conceived: government builds houses and then rations them, distributing them based on political rather than economic criteria. The result has been disastrous, and not only aesthetically. It is ironic that battles are (sometimes literally) fought over access to social housing that is often seen as dilapidated and blighted by crime and communal degradation.
I would therefore disagree with those who argue that the solution to the question raised by Hodge is more social housing. Social housing is the problem. The solution is liberalisation.
Planning regulations must be radically overhauled to allow for more extensive and more innovative house-building. A land value tax must be introduced to encourage landlords to fill vacant properties and develop sites. Meanwhile, government must move to a system of subsidising tenants rather than landlords. Instead of supporting “Social Landlords” and turning local councils into property developers, the entire system should be focussed on housing benefit. This would free individuals to make their own choices about housing, and remove the social stigma that often accrues to council tenants.
As for the immigration issue, a demand-side policy would have two benefits. Firstly, it would reduce the pressure on scarce resources: while government money is not unlimited, it is more responsive to changing needs than the stock of publicly owned housing. Secondly, it would remove the most obvious mark of who is enjoying the State’s largesse. Between them, these two outcomes would reduce the tensions that have resulted from our system of state-allocated housing. It would instead give power and choice to the people, by putting the money in their hands.
But that really would be unthinkable.