Your local council owns prime real estate and could sell it to build new social houses. Housing Minister Grant Shapps says the appeal of this idea promoted by Policy Exchange is ‘obvious’. With a potential pot of £5.5bn to build up to 170,000 affordable homes, what’s not to like? Plenty, apparently: Labour MP Karen Buck warned of a risk to communities, and the importance of mixing groups within our population. Lord Prescott called the idea ‘gerrymandering’.
The empty slogans come from both sides. When someone says ‘nobody has a right to live in’ Chelsea they ought to remember that some people do have a right to live there, and that they pay for that right. This is a significant debate clouded by the use of language like ‘cleansing’ which is most harmful to the credibility of people using the word.
Anyone who has ever looked for property in London has found the location of council housing in prime areas of London staggering. Millions of working taxpayers couldn’t afford to privately rent the sort of council housing locations that some Londoners enjoy. It’s not about jealousy: it’s a problem of scarce resources. Too many opponents to Policy Exchange’s suggestion live in a state of economic denial in which you have the cake and eat it in SW1.
The most bizarre objection to selling overpriced land is that it will result in segregated communities. London is already segregated, in fact every part of the country knows what the economic segregation of the housing market is like. Look in an estate agent’s window That segregation is the symptom of a need for greater levels of employment, economic growth, and prosperity. There are certain parts of London where you can only live if you’re at one end of the spectrum or the other. The squeezed middle in this debate are the middle classes, and yet that’s a segregation which many on the left seem ambivalent about.
Those who condemn the idea as ‘cleansing’ inner cities of council accommodation celebrate the notion that some council tenants live in the smartest areas of London, as if it’s somehow more democratic to have a housing lottery which can drop a tiny few in Kensington, rather than an affordable solution for all. Nobody sensible wants ghettos, and we all understand that the architecture and design of housing are important factors in how the inhabitants feel and act, but the need to find efficient, cheap solutions to the affordable housing crisis shouldn’t be met with slurs from the opponents.
Wouldn’t it be great if we focused not on how many council tenants should live in central London, but on how to house all the people who need to be housed? People who worry about segregation should be worrying about the cost of living. The notion of ‘segregated’ and ‘mixed’ communities is unhelpful. After all, if you want to run the housing market as an exercise in social engineering, why stop with council tenants? Why not start worrying about how many disabled people live in a particular area, or establishing a quota system for ethnic minorities? The desire to intervene on allegedly ‘principled’ grounds to the detriment of the housing system is what’s at stake here, and it’s the right sort of battleground for the next election.