“Social Housing is only for the poor” – revealing, unpleasant, counterproductive

I drafted this piece just before George Osborne’s recent budget (you can see my piece on that at http://www.cwuyouth.org/view-blog.html?blog_id=417 ). Then other stuff got in the way and it languished on my laptop for a bit.  But housing is an issue that never goes away, and the Price Waterhouse report, published yesterday (and reported at http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/jul/22/pwc-report-generation-rent-to-grow-over-next-decade), makes dreadful reading.  So here’s my take on social housing and why the current approach is just wrong.

Like many, my wife’s Gran was bombed out of dockside Birkenhead in the last world war. My father-in-law and his 8 siblings were made homeless by a Rachman-esque landlord from an equally impoverished terrace in the winter of 1937.

Many families were rehoused in then new social housing in the Wirral (Leasowe, not West Kirby, before you ask) after the war.  It was clear to them that this was better than anything they had lived in before and anything they could have expected to occupy then or in the foreseeable future.

They also understood that the four walls and roof was as much a utility as electricity, gas and water.  Something you need, not something to make a profit from.  Something you give back when you have finished with it – so that someone else can use it.

That didn’t make it any less of a home. That didn’t diminish any sense of responsibility or pride. It didn’t stop a wide variety of occupations   being represented by the population of the new estate. My in laws were about as working class as you can get, but by no means were all their neighbours.

So George Osborne’s “social housing is for poor people” is as counter-productive as it is unpleasant as it is revealing

It’s counter-productive because Britain needs homes – all sorts of homes: to buy, to rent privately and social housing.  How to increase the housing stock was a leading issue in the General Election and it is the number one issue in London’s Mayoral campaign.  The shortage is such that even promises to build 250,000 new homes a year  will not put much of a wrecking ball through the demand.

Pressure group Generation Rent (www.generationrent.org)   have produced research that shows in 104 constituencies, renting privately outstrips home ownership.  And yet MP Karen Buck’s Homes (Fit for Human Habitation) Bill is the first serious attempt to get statutory regulation across the UK on this issue.

Social housing is a key part of the supply side mix here; we need more of it.  So it is surely counter-productive to consign social housing to a low income lacuna,   where inhabitation is a mark of failure or hardship.

And in any  event, local authority  housing  statistics  for England and Scotland  for 2013  showed 1.9m  families  were waiting for  council accommodation.

And that is what makes the Chancellor’s  designation  unpleasant. Scrap-heaping 1.9 million families is a lot of people.  A lot of people to disregard, hold in disdain, and mark out as failures.

It is also  an unpleasant, unjustified and  unfair  description  for the  people  in  do their utmost,  every  day,  to  maintain, service and  protect  social  housing  –  and who make the arguments  for  it to have its rightful place  in the  portfolio of accommodation  options in Britain.  Is their work unimportant?  Or of no value or importance?

Because Shelter   report that 17% of families in England live in social housing.  Even more on the Osbornonian scrap-heap.  Even more  people stigmatised, ghetto-ised. Because if social housing “is only for the poor” then you surely create a vicious cycle of under-investment and increasing social cost.

And this is the revealing nature of the Chancellor’s view.  If he  genuinely  believes  that the  Bevan-ite  vision of  a  typical, average  British  residential street is outdated or philosophically inappropriate,  then he is necessarily saying that  millions of  Britons  are  beyond redemption, in the  social and economic wilderness?

But is this not the view of the government anyway?  Private housing good, social housing bad.  Like Private sector good, public service bad.  Low tax good, public investment bad.

Now we see that George Osborne’s analysis is not new but a continuation in a series of steps taking us towards an apartheid Britain. Separation along interlocking and reinforcing economic characteristics.  As Neil Kinnock said as long ago as 1992 “I warn you not to be young, not to grow old, not to fall ill,”

As we approach Budget day, it is an ill wind indeed.

The Trade Union Bill: Be Careful What You Wish For

The Trade Union Bill and the iron law of unintended consequences

Let’s give credit where it is due. And the hype is true. The government’s new Trade Union Bill is the most significant piece of trade union legislation in a generation; perhaps even longer than that, because it goes further, wider and deeper than anything that has preceded it. It is an audacious piece of legislation which fundamentally alters the balance of industrial relations in favour of the employer.

But although measures on industrial action and political donations have grabbed the headlines, as the saying goes – the devil is in the detail.

We are right to be worried about the rules on industrial action. The “double whammy” of a statutory threshold for both turnout and “yes” votes sets standards for trade unions that politicians would never apply to themselves. They would also never have applied them to the employer-equivalent of industrial action – withholding investment, taking excess profits, shutting up shop and moving somewhere else. And it is not just strike ballots, but the requirement to give longer notice and the incitement for employers to use strike-breaking agency workers.

We should be critical of the proposals for political funds too. Harriet Harman was right to point out in the House of Commons yesterday that there is no equivalent when it comes to big business bankrolling of the Conservative Party. But the recycling of arguments from the 1980s about political funds conveniently overlooks the reforms that the Labour Party itself put into place require a conscious opting-in by trade unionists who not only pay a political levy, but wish it to be directed to that destination.

So far, so bad. But like a malignant game of “find the lady”, while our attention is diverted to these big ticket issues, there are areas just as potent and controversial below.

And that is why it is more a question of “be careful what you wish for” than the devil being in the detail.

Every trade union official knows that industrial action represents a failure of the negotiating process. But successful companies have mature, robust and highly innovative trade union/employer partnerships. A lopsided Trade Union Bill seems to presume that the collective voice of employees has nothing to offer. Employers are to be dealt hands stuffed with aces and trump cards. Where is the incentive to truly engage and genuinely negotiate?

The Bill seeks to ride roughshod over other important pieces of legislation. A challenge under Article 11 of the Human Rights Act can surely be on the radar.

Despite the blithe assurances in government statements yesterday that the Bill is not inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR); however if after a lengthy and expensive legal process it turns out not to be the case, hey no problem: there are many in the government who want to scrap the Human Rights Act which would leave withdrawal from the ECHR as an inevitable and logical next step.

And finally, if I was the Certification Officer, I am not sure how I would feel about the huge armoury of extra powers the Bill gives me. It sounds like a legal minefield which involves a purgatory of unending court appearances. But in any event, the invasive powers vested by the Bill surely cut across the provisions of the Data Protection Act which grants special status to the question of an individual’s trade union membership (or not). That provision is also underpinned by the Human Rights Act.

And the obligation to pre-approve tweets and comments on social media during periods of industrial unrest – well hello Big Brother, come in and warm your feet by the fire. Is this is a stunning land-grab on the rights of freedom of expression or alternatively just a clumsy stalking horse to be killed off during the Bill’s Committee Stage.

An objective observer would be forced to conclude that this Bill is a throw-back addressing a problem that no longer exists. Days lost to industrial action have fallen by 95% over the last 35 years. The risk to civil liberties and the destabilising effect this will have on employer relations in the workplace makes this Bill unnecessary as well as unworkable.

The TUC is approaching its 150th anniversary. Time and time again our movement has shown the tenacity, determination, imagination and chutzpah to continue to work with good employers, expose bad ones and above all, repay the trust our members show in us by achieving dignity and fairness at work. The Trade Union Bill encourages the bad and suppresses the good. Be careful what you wish for indeed.