Social housing: a note on the “Goodwin controversy”
“British people need to be housed first. […] [C]lose to half of all social housing in London goes to households that are headed by somebody who was not born in Britain. I don’t think that’s a sustainable situation. I don’t think it’s the right situation. It think we need to revert to a model of social housing that gives clear preference to people who have been in the country for a long period of time”.
His detractors described this as “far right ethnic nationalism”, “BNP-style rhetoric”, “racist”, “Far right nonsense. Utterly ugly and dangerous”, “bog standard, 1970s, National Front”, etc.
Unfortunately, though, none of Prof Goodwin’s detractors asked what, to me, is the most obvious question on this matter. Namely:
Why are we even having this conversation?
Why does it even matter how exactly social housing is allocated?
The reason why it matters, of course, is that demand for social housing vastly outstrips the supply of it. There are many more people who are applying for a social housing flat than there are social housing flats. So inevitably, some applicants will have to be turned down, and many more will have to wait, potentially for a long time. There are more than a million households on a social housing waiting list at any given time.
That is why the allocation rules matter. A small change in those rules can make a big difference to the overall outcome.
Imagine we had a situation where the supply of social housing broadly matches the demand for it, or, better still, a situation where there is a small surplus stock (meaning that not every social housing unit will be occupied all the time). It would then matter a lot less how exactly that housing stock is allocated. We could have a Goodwinite system that prioritises British-born people. We could have a system that prioritises single parents. We could have a system that prioritises the poorest. Or whatever else. But whatever it is, in the end, all applicants would get their social housing flat.
“Oh, how interesting!”, I can hear you say through the screen. “So a neoliberal, market-fundamentalist IEA shill finally admits that there’s a social housing shortage! That’s progress, I guess!”
In which case – not so fast. As a proportion of the total housing stock, Britain has one of the largest social housing sectors in the developed world. The UK’s social housing sector accounts for 16.7% of the UK’s housing stock – that is one in six housing units. That’s also more than twice the EU average (7.5%) and the OECD average (7%). The equivalent figure is 4.3% in Norway, 4.2% in Belgium, and 2.7% in Germany.
What’s doing some heavy lifting here, though, is “as a proportion of the total housing stock”. Because Britain – as I may have mentioned a few trillion times on this blog previously – has a much smaller housing stock than most comparable countries. And that is the source of most of Britain’s problems (or at least an aggravating factor).
It means that, even if Britain’s social housing sector is larger than that of the average EU or OECD country, it is also under much greater pressure than its counterparts elsewhere. Because there aren’t enough alternatives.
In any half-way functioning housing market, the vast majority of the population should easily be able to afford either private rental accommodation, or homeownership. Sure, there will always be some people who, for whatever reason, cannot do that, and for them, there needs to be a safety net. Britain’s social housing sector is more than adequate to accommodate the part of the population that could not afford housing even in a functional or at least semi-functional market. But it is clearly not adequate to accommodate the millions who are being squeezed out of the dysfunctional, NIMBY-constrained housing market that we actually have.
That is why the sector is so overcrowded, and as long as that is the case, we need to somehow decide who gets into it, and who does not. That choice inevitably involves value judgements, and since different people have different values, their value judgements are bound to clash. Sooner or later, someone will say “Why group X, rather than group Y? I think group Y are more deserving!”
That is exactly what the Goodwin controversy is about. I don’t personally agree with Prof Goodwin’s approach, nor do I think his intervention is especially helpful. While Prof Goodwin’s detractors never bother to ask how we got ourselves into a situation where we need to have such debates at all, or how we could get out of this situation – neither do the Goodwinistas. Both sides just take the meagre housing stock we currently have as a given, and then squabble over how it should be distributed.
I don’t think there’s anything “far-right”, “BNP-style” or “National Front” about Prof Goodwin’s proposals – I just think they’re depressingly unambitious. We should be arguing about how to grow our meagre housing pie, not how to divvy up what little we have, or whether to stick union jack flags into it.