Cameron shows terrible condescension towards council tenants. Not all want to move and buy
I wonder what went through David Cameron's mind in Birmingham when the woman living in overcrowded council housing asked him what he was going to do about it. Did she want him to kick out elderly couples with a spare bedroom so she wouldn't have to sleep on a blow-up bed? Or was she simply asking him what the coalition government planned to do about the fact that the long-propagated dream of a "property-owning democracy" has, directly or otherwise, put 4.5 million people on the waiting list for social housing?
His answer revealed that, after 30 years of deliberate marginalisation and residualisation of council housing and the people who live in it so it is rationed to those in the most desperate circumstances and treated like an embarrassment to the housing stock, he's going in for more of the same. Not only that, but that he regards housing security as being an impediment to social mobility, and that anyone with a decent job shouldn't want a council house in the first place.
Grant Shapps, the housing minister, has announced details of a National Affordable Home Swap Scheme in which all social housing tenants will be able to swap their home with another elsewhere: not a new policy at all, but a new way of putting it. Cameron put the coalition's plans to get people on their bikes more bluntly: "Maybe in five or 10 years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won't need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector," he told his audience, adding that social housing and lack of social mobility are inextricably linked.
This was his version of the comment commonly but mistakenly attributed to Margeret Thatcher that anyone who travels on a bus after the age of 26 should regard themselves as a failure. It's been a long while – since the introduction of the right to buy in 1980 – since social housing has been actively popular. However, the fact remains that millions of people, most of them low-paid because successive governments have endorsed a low-pay economy, choose to live in social housing because they do not relish the stress of taking out a mortgage they would struggle to afford, in a place where they don't know anyone.
These proposals are as ideological as any of the Thatcher-era policies designed to encourage a sense of shame at living in the north, or at feeling a deep attachment to places where there was no longer any work. Is Cameron really suggesting that anyone who gets a decent-paying job ought to give up their tenancy? If he believes that's the price of shunting lower-paid people around the country in order to fuel the "flexible workforce", then he must be.There is a clear link between the housing you grow up in and your chances of social mobility. To make that link in a vacuum, as Cameron did on Tuesday, is to make what ought to be a practical matter a moral one. No mention of the fact that most people who live on estates do work, but many earn wages too low either to raise a deposit or to even think about taking out a mortgage.
Look at what the Tories promise to tenants "with a record of five years' good behaviour": "a 10% equity share in their social rented property, which can be cashed in when they want to move up the housing ladder". Like the phrase "big society", this speaks of terrible condescension. Can you, you poor renting fool, behave yourself for five whole years? You can? Get a toe on the ladder.
I'm not blind to the awful, stomach-churning stress of living alongside tenants who believe in the right to do what they like and be protected from eviction. But transience is the enemy of community. A well-functioning community, in which people know each other and are used to getting together to solve problems, can contain the disruption caused by antisocial householders and prevent isolated incidents from turning into sustained campaigns.
Estates with high levels of social problems are the ones with the highest turnover of tenancies: they are situated in the areas of worst-quality housing, with the poorest reputations, and with the worst amenities. People are housed in them because they are desperate: they quickly realise it's not a good place to live and they move to better housing as soon as circumstances allow.
There's room to ask why we still need "affordable housing" in the first place. Why not make all housing more affordable by increasing supply? Why not make sure people get decent pay for the work they do? Once we were warned not to be ordinary, or to fall ill, or to get old, under Tory rule. To these warnings it looks as though we will have to add: never treat your house as a home.