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Ed’s error – opening the social housing allocations can of worms

I supported Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership and I firmly believe he will become the next Prime Minister.  But in my policy area, housing, I think he has just made a major policy error.  His people should realise that you’re politically in the wrong place when you share territory with Tory Westminster Council.  In the land of Lady Porter they have been looking to export their poorest people for many years, long before the Coalition’s housing benefit policies were described by Boris Johnson as ‘Kosovo-style cleansing’.  By stressing employment as a factor in social housing allocation, Westminster’s new housing allocations policy is just a more extreme version of what Ed is suggesting.
Regrettably, a couple of Labour boroughs have also taken up the theme that they have too many unemployed and poor people and that they should live somewhere else (where? is not a question they ever answer).  Now they have cover – the Labour Leader approves that they should by allocating homes to people who make some kind of vague contribution to society.
As with the argument about evicting rioters whose family are council tenants, there is no rhyme or reason as to why this special preference should be targeted at social housing.  Why isn’t it a requirement in other policy areas as well?  For example, only people who make a contribution to society should get free health care or have their bins collected or go to Oxford or get pension tax relief or be able to drive on motorways.
On these grounds, bankers, journalists, many politicians and anyone called Murdoch would fail to qualify for any services at all.
Over many years politicians and the media have been good at saying who should get social housing.  But ultimately, with extreme shortage, if you want to change priorities it is dishonest just to say who you think should get the homes: you also have to say who will NOT get them as a result of your new policy.  Vague statements, reminiscent of the old distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, or the poor we like versus the poor we don’t like, make bad policy.
Anyone who has ever been involved in the process of housing allocations knows that only people in extreme and acute housing need get anywhere near being allocated a social home.  I would set Ed Miliband a test: go into an allocations department, look through the cases, meet up with the people concerned and then pick the family that will not get a home because you have decided to allocate it to someone who has less housing need but meets some test of their ‘contribution’.
Allocating extremely scarce housing has to be done transparently against clear rules, and judgements are often subject to Ombudsman cases or judicial review.  So vague principles are not enough.  How many points will ‘being in a job’ be worth compared to being overcrowded to the point where your health is failing and your children are falling behind at school?  How many points will ‘being a school governor’ get compared to having a severe disability and high medical priority?  How will you deal with people who were in work but had to give up because of redundancy or age or illness?  Will you revert to the 1950s test where inspectors came round to judge your housekeeping standards before you got a home?
Believe me, Ed, this is a can of worms you will regret ever opening.  And I suspect you only got into it because it is a policy where it feels like you can make change without it costing anything.
There has been a lot of talk at Labour Conference this year about offering apologies for the failures of the last government.  New affordable housebuilding was the Titanic of policy failures, only addressed towards the end of our term: if we want to impress the electorate with our housing policies we have to talk about how we can build hundreds of thousands of additional homes in the future.  Rearranging the deckchairs on the housing allocations sub-deck is a futile gesture and a diversion from the real issues in housing

This post has also appeared on LabourList at–opening-the-social-housing-allocations-can-of-worms