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More social housing? No thanks, says Labour Mayor

Interesting conference yesterday hosted by the Notting Hill Housing Association at City Hall. (No they didn't charge a fee for me to go.) The theme was "communities that work" - the problem of estates where most residents are on welfare. A range of councillors, council officers, housing association reps, property developers, academics, Quango reps and assorted other specialists were there. With a range of views. There was certainly no lazy consensus that social housing was a good thing and the answer was to have more of it.

Sir Robin Wales, the directly elected Labour Mayor of Newham, spoke rather well. (Confusingly, he is not a cockney or Welsh but aggressively Scots.) He made a point of being partisan with attacks on Thatcher and Boris Johnson. But this was really to give himself cover to offer a rather Conservative perspective. In some ways he was attacking Boris from the right: "The Mayor of London has given us a target for more social housing in Newham. But I don't want to import poverty into Newham," he said.

Earlier, Dr Tim Williams of Navigate Consulting had criticised Boris for replacing Ken Livingstone target of 50% of new housing having to be social housing with a new approach of simply giving a target for the total amount of social housing. I think Livingstone's fixation with percentages made it difficult for schemes to be economically viable so nothing was built - or if they were then the "social" bit would consist of rabbit hutches, "housing units" rather than homes worthy of the name.

Anyway, Williams thought the thinking was still flawed: "We have replaced one set of Stalinist targets with another. Like the original Stalinist targets without a chance of being met."

I asked Sir Robin if the point wasn't what the "social housing" consisted of. If it was "social rented" it might well mean importing poverty, but not if it was "intermediate" housing consisting of low cost home ownership. He agreed saying he was very keen to have more home ownership in Newham.

On getting people back to work, Sir Robin said "training courses don't work." Often the Government would offer money for training courses such as hairdressing where the jobs weren't available. The key was guaranteeing people that if they got a job they wouldn't be worse off financially. In Newham they have encouraged people back into work by saying: "If you are worse off losing welfare benefits by getting a job then Newham Council will make up the difference." Sir Robin added: "If anyone says a low wage job isn't a real job I'll go nuts."

There were some apologists for the status quo. Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of Lewisham Council said: "Social housing doesn't make you poor. You have to be poor to qualify for social housing in the first place." True, but social housing can help keep you poor.

Jamie Carswell, a Labour councillor from Hackney, said social housing dealt with the "market failure" of housing the poor and had replaced slums. But the "market failure" of the poor not having enough money to pay for food and clothes does not mean the state provides the food and the clothes. It provides the money for them to pay for it themselves. Tower blocks replaced vertical slums with horizontal slums.

Enjoyable as they ideological clashes might have been we were then despatched into workshops to come up with ideas. My workshop was on boosting the private rented sector. My idea (actually the idea of someone I was canvassing the other day) was to raise the threshold for the Rent a Room allowance. This is the amount of rent you can have tax free when you rent out a room. The Conservatives introduced the scheme since 1992. But the threshold has been stuck on £4,250 for as long as anyone can remember. I hope the next Government gives it a boost. Over to you, Mr Osborne.


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