Policy Exchange: our solution to the housing crisis? Sell off more council homes!

Policy Exchange, the think tank with close ties to the so-called Notting Hill set, has proposed that ‘expensive’ council homes be sold off in order to ease the housing shortage. A few years ago, Localis, which in its own turn has close ties to Policy Exchange, also proposed the same thing in this report. So there’s nothing new about this latest announcement from Policy Exchange and as ideas go, it’s one of a few that gets recycled and presented as a stunning new, but ultimately evidence-free, report.

Think-tanks exist to give credence to the barking mad ideas of whichever party they happen to be associated with. Policy Exchange, in common with many of the other think-tanks, describes itself as “non-partisan”. Of course we know that isn’t true, particularly if the think-tank in question goes out of its way to talk up its notional neutrality. They doth protest too much! The Tories prefer their think-tanks to conduct slipshod research and to base their reports on their own prejudices and their sense of self-righteousness rather than on evidence.

I heard Neil O’Brien, Policy Exchange’s director, on the Today programme this morning talking about the latest report. His rationale appeared to suggest that people who rent council street properties (that’s what they’re called) shouldn’t do so, because they’re not the right class of person to be occupying such a high value property. Okay, he didn’t put it in those exact words but that is the essence of what he said. He claimed that councils bought up street properties in the 1970s and therefore those council tenants who occupy them are less deserving than a Tory-supporting rentier capitalist.

Policy Exchange’s slogan is

For better public services, a stronger society and a more dynamic economy.

“Better public services”? Coming from a think-tank that is committed to destroying what’s left of public services, it’s an Orwellianism to be sure.

I’ve only skimmed the report and like all the other reports that are produced by Policy Exchange, it isn’t based on any kind of research, but on a form of class disgust that is couched in academic-sounding language and supported by impressive-looking graphics.

The report’s synopsis opens with this,

Is extremely popular with all sections of society. 73% of people including social tenants think that people should not be given council houses worth more than the average property in a local authority. By 2:1 voters agree people should not be given council houses in expensive areas.

Then there’s this,

Raises tenants’ standard of living. The majority of social tenants are either totally or largely reliant on benefits. Someone living on benefits in an expensive part of London will pay a 10-15% premium compared to someone living in a cheaper area.

Again, there is no evidence to support this assertion that the majority of ‘social’ tenants are totally or largely reliant on benefits and even if that were the case, the issue is not the benefits themselves but the lack of decent jobs coupled with the high cost of living, neither of which can be ameliorated by the author’s proposals.  Where did this figure come from and what percentage of the respondents were actual council tenants? The author doesn’t say.

The report’s author is Alex Morton, who

was Secretary to the Conservative Party’s Globalisation and Global
Poverty Policy Group under the Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP. Following this he worked in the Civil Service Graduate Fast Stream before leaving to join Policy Exchange.

And

He is the author of the 2010 report Making Housing Affordable, which won the Prospect magazine’s Think Tank Publication of the Year and highlighted the cost of current housing policies.

Prospect magazine. Am I supposed to be impressed? This is perhaps the most important bit of Morton’s ‘report’.

Social housing tenants deserve a roof over their heads – but not one better than most people can afford

And there you have it, the author’s class disgust and class prejudice was the driver of this report. But who is this majority that Morton alludes to? It’s a mystery.

Housing Associations like Peabody have been selling off properties as soon as they become vacant for several years.  This blog from Peabody tells us that the policy of selling council properties in desirable areas has been on the table since before last year.

Last week, Policy Exchange’s Matthew Oakley argued in the Guardian that social housing properties in desirable areas – eg, central London boroughs – should be sold off. The revenue, he suggested, could be invested in social housing elsewhere – eg, in cheaper and less desirable areas in outer London or even outside of London.

But it is also ironic that while Peabody complains about this policy, it is more than happy to comply with the government’s diktat. But have Policy Exchange merely duplicated their own previous work? It seems likely. Here’s more from the ‘report’.

Ultimately, as our report Making Housing Affordable set out, we need affordable private housing to cut social housing waiting lists,
which fell from 1.2 million to 1 million between 1979–1997 as market housing was cheaper.

With rents the highest they’ve ever been, how does the author propose to make private housing more “affordable”? This cannot be achieved without some form of rent control and, as we know, the Tories are implacably opposed to rent caps or rent controls. I get the feeling that any solutions that are proposed by the Tories and their think-tanks aren’t real solutions at all, but are, instead, a means of rationalizing their class prejudices.

Naturally the news of this report in the media has been accompanied by a blog from O’Brien, whose own short biography tells us that, “He writes in a personal capacity”. That would appear to be untrue.

To be clear, what I’m proposing wouldn’t mean a single person having to move house. We are only talking about selling off houses that become empty. Nor would it mean that social housing would disappear from expensive cities like London, because the definition of “expensive” I am using is specific to a particular region, not the national average.

O’Brien speaks with forked tongue. Those properties that become empty will not be used to house a council tenant but sold off to someone with money to spend on a useless leasehold tenancy. He claims that social housing will not disappear but this is precisely what would happen. This next quote is similarly disingenuous,

Lots of expensive social housing has come about unintentionally. In the 1970s Britain’s big cities were on their knees. London boroughs in particular took the opportunity to snap up terraces of housing in run-down places like Islington at bargain prices. But Britain’s inner cities – particularly London – have been transformed. What were slums are now eye-wateringly expensive places to live. Two thirds of the heads of households in social housing are not in work, and when you’re living on benefits, it’s not helpful if your nearest shop has been turned into a mini-Waitrose.

My bold. There are three things here. The first is O’Brien’s assertion that London has been “transformed”, he offers the neutral-sounding, “What were slums are now eye-wateringly expensive places to live”. But O’Brien, a sophist by trade and a liar by nature, can only tell part of the story, the rest is simply discarded because it doesn’t fit the narrative. There has been a housing shortage in London for several decades, local authorities were performing their public duty. The alternative would have been to have let such properties to crumble. Indeed, O’Brien has deluded himself into thinking that middle class, would-be property owners would have flocked en masse to places like Brixton to snap up the many empty street properties that were available in the late 1960s and 1970s.

When many councils bought street properties, so too did many middle class people who bought these properties for a song at auction. O’Brien also deliberately ignores the ongoing gentrification programmes, but what really stands out for me is the last clause in bold. This illuminates O’Brien’s deep-seated class disgust.  He assumes that people on council estates would not shop in Waitrose (which, incidentally, offers substantial reductions on items that are close to their sell-by date. The others will knock off 10 or 20p and think they’re doing you a favour and their own brand butter is cheaper than the other supermarkets own brands too. So there!). What O’Brien also assumes is that middle class home-owners don’t shop at Lidl or Aldi. But he would be mistaken because many of them do. Why? Have a look at the prices (especially on wines) in the big three supermarkets and then come back to me. In many of the places that O’Brien and his team would like working class people to move, there are few amenities. These are the so-called food deserts, where the local shops will include a takeaway, a betting shop and a general shop that sells newspapers and tinned and frozen food, all at a premium price. But nothing fresh.

So to sum up, there is no methodology mentioned in this report and the graphics that are used to bolster Morton’s thesis are the product of a YouGov survey that was commissioned by Policy Exchange. These graphics are used in conjunction with cherry-picked graphics from a previous YouGov survey, which was commissioned by The Sun. So it’s hardly non-partisan and most certainly not objective.

Another attack on tenants has appeared on 24 Dash. Foghorn Phibbs, who is already well known to Nowhere Towers, aims his fire at the Tenant Participation Advisory Service (TPAS). Is this some sort of absurd pincer movement?

Phibbs once infamously described council tower blocks as “vertical slums”.  In his recent blog, Foghorn has

accused TPAS of spending thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on “lavish” awards and employing policy officers to lobby against government housing policy. He also criticised the cost of its annual conference and branded the performance of chief executive Michelle Reid a “farce”.

Naturally, Foghorn doesn’t offer any analysis, just bile. Here’s an excerpt from his screed.

“Substantial taxpayer funding for social housing is being redirected from spending of practical benefit and passed instead to an organisation called the Tenant Participation Advisory Service.

“I couldn’t find its accounts on its website but it has 23 full time paid staff which implies its budget is substantial. Funding would also seem to come overwhelmingly from the taxpayer – via housing associations and assorted council housing departments and “arms length” bodies.

“Spending transparency data shows the TPAS is paid thousands by, for example, Salix Homes, who manage Salford Council properties, for ‘customer involvement’. Taunton Deane Borough Council has paid it £2,440.80 for ‘supervision and management’. Hounslow Council has paid it £16,000 in a single month. Lambeth and Luton are among other councils that splash out a lot of their residents money. North Lincolnshire Homes paid the TPAS for a report – which praised North Lincolnshire Homes for giving £500 to Unison for CRB Checks.

Pure sophistry. But those awful CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks…. terrible things.  Much better to have child sex offenders and rapists looking after vulnerable tenants. No? But that’s not what’s got his goat, so to speak, it’s the fact that there exists an organization that provides help, support and advice for tenants that upsets him. He rationalizes this in typical Tory style, “why should I pay for these people”, he thunders.  Notice the way he gets in a swipe at Unison. But it’s a badly aimed swipe. Those people who are members of Unison are working with vulnerable people and they are required by  law to undergo CRB checks. Perhaps Phibbs would rather the local authority in question broke the law?

I found this on Conservative Home (yes, they get homes, while everyone else has to make do with a bit of plastic sheeting and some newspaper for insulation).

It is an odd brand of socialism that argues that the state should provide luxury mansions for the few rather than sell them to enable an increased supply of housing for the many. Socialism by jackpot.

Sensationalism, hyperbole and exaggeration are employed here to mask the patent lack of thinking. No one is provided with a “luxury mansion” and I would challenge the author of this drivel to provide me with some evidence, but I know that I could be waiting forever because Tories don’t like evidence, much less the truth.

UPDATE 20/8/12 @ 2307

I’ve seen Foghorn Phibbs on Newsnight trying and failing spectacularly to defend Policy Exchange’s, er, thinking on the housing crisis. This is the best they could do, apparently, such is the intellectual talent that was available that they chose Harry ‘Foghorn’ Phibbs, former member of the FCS, pillar of the local community, councillor, Greenhalgh’s mouthpiece and Daily Mail hack, to fight their corner.  Bravo, chaps!

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3 Comments

Filed under Government & politics, Think Tanks

3 responses to “Policy Exchange: our solution to the housing crisis? Sell off more council homes!

  1. Vinny Smith

    Good piece. I live in a council flat at the top of a Victorian house in north London, it was a fairly ordinary street when I moved in in 1987, a few “nice” big houses,but quite a lot of semi-derelict ones too and many houses inhabited by elderly people who had lived there all there lives. Since then it has been gentrified, the affluent middle-class have moved in and my one bedroom flat is now worth nearly £300,000, well out of what I could afford on my income (I could buy it on right-to-buy at a substantial discount but I don’t believe in RTB & don’t have this British fetishism with owning a property). All I’ve done is sit on my arse in my flat, as have property owners who have seen their properties rise in value every year.

    It’s been often said, but a lowering of price is looked on as desirable in everything but property. The whole argument of Policy Exchange is flawed take Kentish Town down the road. To the east of Kentish Town Road there are million quid houses whose next door neighours can be council tenants, but to the west of Kentish Town Road are big council estates and tower blocks but mixed amongst them can be costly houses. Do you decant all council tenants in east NW5 into west NW5?

    It’s not going to happen, it’s up to the local council and Camden, except for one brief spell early noughties, has always been Labour & they have refused to contemplate implementing “free market” Tory or New Labour legislation on council housing (cos most council tenants vote Labour). The one exception was in 2008 that council housing be transferred to an Arms Length Management Organisation (Almo) , a typical Blarite New Labour wheeze. “Vote for an Almo and we’ll carry out a 200 million quid renovation programme” New Labour said,. “But if you vote to remain with the council we won’t”. they added.

    Us council tenants smelt a rat and told New Labour, by a massive majority just where they could stick their Almo, we were staying with the council. In the end the renovation programme was carried out anyway.

    BTW if Ratboy Phibbs thinks tower blocks aree “vertical slums” does this also apply to the expensive, private flats in the tower blocks of the Barbican? And what about Trellick Tower? In the early ’80s it was looked on as an awful place, but nowadays flats in the Tower are regarded as highly desirable and are much sought after. Can Phibbs explain this?

  2. Hi Vinny, I’m familiar with Kentish Town and it’s pretty typical of large parts of London. Brixton, where I once worked as a technical officer for Lambeth council is the same. Brixton, like Kentish Town, wasn’t a trendy or desirable with the middle classes before the late 1980s.By the early 90s there were floods of meeja types moving in because they found it edgy – as Notting Hill had been before it.

    ALMOs are a joke and most tenants can see through the facade. The one thing that really gets me is the shared ownership scheme, where you pay the mortgage on half of the property and continue to pay the rest in rent. Who wins in that set up? Not the tenant/buyer/whatever that’s for sure. All they get is the symbolism of home-ownership and nothing else. They don’t even get the dubious satisfaction of cleaning out their own gutters because these are leasehold properties.The gutters will be cleaned by the freeholder who will charge an extortionate sum for ‘services’.

    The sign is everything!

  3. Ken

    “What were slums are now eye-wateringly expensive places to live” – what has to be stressed that this proposal doesn’t just apply to “mansions” in Westminster and Chelsea but also properties in boroughs like Croydon and Lewisham. These properties would most likely be bought by buy to let landlords, further exasperating rental prices in London.

    While it is necessary for a discussion for affordable housing in London and in the UK as well as stronger government input I don’t see this selling off of council homes a solution to the housing crisis.

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