Steve Howlett is the chief executive of Peabody, one of London’s oldest and largest housing associations. Last month Peabody responded to the government’s “pay-to-stay” proposals, which, if implemented, would mean social housing tenants on higher incomes having their rents increased. Howlett wrote:
We fully support the principle behind these proposals. With so many on the waiting list who can’t access affordable housing, we think it’s right that better off tenants who can afford a higher rent are asked to contribute more...[But] the scheme as it has been presented would raise enormous challenges for social landlords to implement. How much does someone have to earn to be considered a “high earner”? How will landlords identify these tenants? What happens when people’s circumstances change and their income fluctuates suddenly?
No doubt all the administrative challenges could be overcome. But given the relatively low estimates of tenants earning salaries above 60,000, the additional income generated from higher rents for landlords to invest in new affordable homes, is likely to be small.
The headline of Howlett’s article is “Pay to stay? Here today, gone tomorrow?” I’m tempted to read the latter as a rhetorical question. Like other coalition policy wheezes generated by the Minister Previously Known As Michael Green, the attraction of “pay-to-stay” for the government seems to be more about public relations than serious solutions, presenting endless opportunities to say “Bob Crow” in public and allowing the chorus of hisses to drown out sane debate.
A piece for the blog of Hammersmith and Fulham (HF) Tories posted three days after Howlett’s illustrates well this triumph of panto over policy. “It cannot make sense for Londoners on six figure salaries to receive social housing when there are so many in real need of it,” it boomed, but though it banged on about the RMT leader it didn’t say how many six-figure salary social housing tenants in London there actually are.
It did, however, trumpet HF’s intention from next year to prevent households earning more than 40,200 from applying for social housing, while, “A new focus will be placed on helping local low to middle earners.” It also praised August’s Policy Exchange report advocating a sell-off of high value council-owned homes, “allowing the government to use the funding to build new affordable homes.”
Let’s leave aside the small matter of a massive redevelopment project that HF backs proposing precious little housing for “local low to middle earners” but plenty for wealthy investors. Let’s forget for the moment the government’s definition of an “affordable” home for rent being up to 80% of local market levels, which for many Londoners wouldn’t be very “affordable” at all.
Let’s instead remind ourselves that the shortage of social housing is already so acute that next to no one bringing in 40,200 a year stands a chance of being allocated one as it is, so HF’s announcement is little more than crowd-pleasing noise.
As for Policy Exchange’s idea - one in close keeping with the desire of Stephen Greenhalgh, the man who led HF from 2006 until earlier this year to do away with social housing altogether - Tony Clements has argued persuasively at Progress that it would be bad social policy, bad business, and no way at all to foster prosperous, resilient communities.
Like their benefit caps, the housing policies of the coalition and its trailblazers on the ground are a wasteful combination of gimmicks, ideological zeal and a lust for populist headlines that are having a particularly bad effect on low and middle-income Londoners. And so the crisis deepens.
— Guardian News and Media Ltd