Move On If You’re Monied (Or Now Alone)
The status is still unclear of recent proposals by senior politicians that social housing (‘council housing’ and the like in old parlance) be only for those in greatest financial need. But whether simply political musing, or seriously on the agenda, these propositions are a very bad idea. And so, without very careful preparation, is the idea that you must move on if you are job-seeking or if family changes mean your house has fewer residents and in official terms becomes ‘underoccupied’.
Such proposals miss the point that people live in communities, not isolation; and communities require a degree of stability. These ideas can result only in one thing – more so-called ‘no hope’ estates, and fast.
Surely by now we have learnt that a degree of social and economic mix is essential in any resilient community, as is a level of stability in terms of who lives there? One of the reasons for the direness of some of the old ‘no-hope’ council estates was their failure to retain and nurture their more ambitious residents.
People are not, as some new-think politicians seem to believe, micro-economic units standing alone, without dependency on or reference to others. Almost all of us are connected in our day-to-day lives with family members, neighbours, friends, classmates and in numerous other ways as well.
Sometimes this interconnection might be related to intergenerational worklessness (which we all agree is a serious problem); but it is also often connected with the shared care and co-production of support services which permit people to work and to share everyday community life.
Diversity of need and experience
Perhaps the politicians who suggested the ‘move on if you have (any) money‘ model of social housing forget that by no means all workers are single and able-bodied with few commitments – a group which in fact comprises quite a small minority of the population.
Many workers are parents who care for children, adults who care for elderly parents, people whose cultural expectations are towards close extended family, people with disabilities who need support to engage in the economy, young people who cannot afford as yet to move away from the family home…. Need we continue? All these ‘groups’ of workers or putative workers require a stable home location most of the time; the last thing they need is an enforced move away from their current housing the minute they earn a few extra quid.
And the same applies to people who now seemingly rattle around in their empty homes; some of them receive frequent visitors (grandchildren..) and some might well like a smaller place. But almost all of them want to stay closeby, albeit many of them are newly-single (and often, sadly, also newly bereaved).
And that’s before we begin to think about housing as community. Many people who live in social housing have put down roots, they have invested money in their homes, they maybe provide working (employed) role models to young people and children in their areas, perhaps they also provide support for their communities in other ways too.
The removal of people from social housing because they are ‘too wealthy’ or ‘too single’ to stay where they are is, at best, a rapid route to dismantling stable communities along with the less positive ones. At worst it is an idea which leaves a very nasty question mark about the powers of the state over vulnerable people.
Home ownership expectations
In other parts of Europe the expectation that one should buy one’s own home is far lower than in the UK, which makes the UK position rather odd, given that our population density is higher than most other countries’. Social housing stock is nonetheless disappearing rapidly.
Perhaps we all need to consider more carefully other models of housing provision – more good private rental? more shared ownership? bigger apartments to accommodate families properly?
But it’s likely that the rising generation will be less intent on owning their own homes anyway, given the difficulties for them of doing so (difficulties, it might be noted, that have applied also to some other generations; ‘only’ the population demographic has changed).
The ‘move on if you’re monied (or newly single)’ idea reflects fundamentally poor insight and understanding on the part of those who propose it.
The idea does not in any case stack up politically – imagine the headlines, the first time a family is evicted for being ‘too rich’ or ‘too single’. Nor does it necessarily stack in policy and economic terms, not least because making local communities less stable can lead to long-term costs.
Homes for real people
But most critically of all, this idea demonstrates a model of human activity based entirely on the economic bottom line, as though all else is secondary.
This is errant nonsense. Most of us have a life outside the parameters of our wage (or even benefit) package, a life which for many is more meaningful than the 9-to-5 one. Our homes and communities are important to us, whether we are in paid work or not.
Economics and government budgets must be tools employed skilfully in the service of all citizens and communities, not used wilfully to circumscribe and restrict some of them. If the housing powers-that-be don’t understand even that, I guess we’re in for a pretty bad time for a while yet.
A version of this article was first published on the New Start magazine blog on 13 August 2010.