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Social landlords should help with childcare to get tenants into work

The Centre for London, an offshoot of Demos, has produced a report considering what could be done to get more social housing tenants into work. I don't agree with all of it (not that you would expect me to given that one of its authors used to work for the Fabian Society). However, it makes lots of interesting points, including the particular difficulty in London for single mothers to find jobs that reward them enough to take.

Across the UK, less than one fifth of households live in a local authority or housing association home, but a quarter of Londoners do so. Only 44% of working age adults in these homes have a job. The figure is about the same for London and the country as a whole. But for single parents, London has worse results: 53% are economically inactive - 4% higher than the nation overall. Also 32% of all social households in London have female single parents with dependent children, compared with 25% across the UK.

The report says it is harder for single mothers in London to find work as fewer part time jobs are available, there is less likely to be a "support network" (grandparents etc helping to look after the children), and there is also a shortage of paid childcare - making it expensive and often inconvenient.

Conservatives believe that social housing should be a springboard, not a destination. There is not much prospect of this if the tenants are trapped on welfare. So serious consideration should be given to whether helping with childcare could be effective.

The report suggests social landlords could do two things:

First, one of the key problems in providing childcare in London is the cost of renting suitable premises.  For example, whereas the rent on a ground floor nursery in Stockport would be £40 to £60 per square metre, in London it would be between £100 and £250. Yet many social landlords can make premises available – for example, disused garages, workshops, launderettes and shops – at little cost. Social landlords will also have the business and administrative skills necessary to convert properties and run the business side of childcare services. The universality of this kind of service also makes it relatively cost effective. Highly targeted services seeking out the hardest to reach are very expensive and labour intensive, whereas childcare provision can be scaled far more easily.

Second, parents tend to want childcare to be provided very locally, and there is at least anecdotal evidence that local services can be hard to come by in poor areas with high numbers of social tenants. Social landlords, however, are well positioned to provide very local services. Indeed, there is good reason to think that they might be better suited to providing childcare support – in the form of early years support and out of school activities – than they are to providing other kinds of into-work support. (As we have seen, one of the constraints social landlords face in introducing tenants to employers is their relative lack of connectedness with employers. Social landlords have relationships with their contractors, and some have used these successfully to help find tenants work, but they are unlikely to have relationships with a broad range of local employers and so only have limited power to broker relations between tenants and employers.)

What about a housing association helping single mothers, who are their tenants, to swap childcare? This is an area where the barter economy already flourishes, but could a nudge do more?

The Minister for Children, Liz Truss has noted that the level of red tape for childcare in this country is much higher than on the continent. The excessive amount of regulation is to blame for the shortage. The statutory requirement is three children per child minder. In countries such as Sweden and France the ratio is higher. The low ratio we have makes childminding a low paid job even though the charges are high. It has the unintended consequence of reducing quality by reducing competition.

Miss Truss is trying to sort this out. Even if she succeeeds, perhaps especially if she succeeds, the proposal in this report for social landlords to help should be embraced.

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