Gordon Brown has made it very clear that building ‘affordable’ housing is his top policy to try and win the next election – even if it means controversial cuts in other areas such as roads, education and health. The policy document called ‘Building Britain’s Future’ promises that investment in housing will be trebled to 2.1bn, funding 110,000 new affordable homes over two years, creating 45,000 jobs in construction.
The policy, believed to be heavily influenced by Lord Mandelson, was immediately surrounded in controversy. Within hours the sums were being challenged – not least by the Department for Communities who appeared to be fighting a proposal that its Decent Homes refurbishment programme was under threat of plunder. This programme was set up in 1997 to repair four million council homes and if it is under threat it could leave 200,000 council homes in disrepair, which would make nonsense out of the proposed policy to build new social housing.
The Tory leader David Cameron said that it was a “relaunch without a spending tag” and accused ministers of “dishonesty”. His comments came after Lord Mandelson said that there would be no spending review before the next general election. There was more controversy as Mr Brown appeared to be discriminating against immigrants with comments about the allocation of social housing: “By building new and additional homes we can also now reform social housing allocation enabling local authorities to give more priority to local people whose names have been on waiting lists for far too long,” he said. These comments and others like it were seen as a response to the growing support for the BNP in traditional Labour areas.
Housing associations in England welcomed the extra funding but stressed that it was a ‘myth’ that local people were losing out to immigrants in the race for social housing and that the real problem was lack of supply. The opposition leader predictably latched on to the underlying message saying that ministers should be “very, very careful with the language that they use” and he took the opportunity to bring up the discredited ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan that the Prime Minister had previously used.
According to a study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission the perception that new migrants jump the social housing queue is indeed a myth. Its research showed that 60% of migrants who had come to Britain in the last five years are living in privately rented accommodation and that most newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers are actually banned from access to social housing. In terms of overall new lettings, out of 170,000 new council and housing association tenants in 2006/07, fewer than 5% went to foreign nationals.
So why is the public’s perception so far away from this research? One explanation given is the fact that many privately rented homes that are let out to recently arrived migrants tend to be former council properties in run-down areas. Neither is the spread of foreign nationals living in social housing an equal spread across the country; Yorkshire, the north-west and the east of England has the most. Officially migrants from outside of the European Union are not permitted access to social housing but many non-EU citizens who access Britain from somewhere else in the EU can get around this problem. Those who have officially been recognised as refugees (around 6,000 people per year) and those given indefinite leave to remain can apply for council and housing association homes.