Amidst concerns about migrants’ social housing allocations, statistics offer the public little reassurance - we need a new, transparent and inclusive approach.
Jill Rutter is an associate fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), and one of the authors of “Social Housing Allocation and Immigrant Communities” (EHRC, 2009); she writes here in a personal capacity
There is no doubt that there are real public concerns about the scale and impact of international migration into the UK.
Among the most controversial and misunderstood of these concerns are the supposed impacts of migration on social housing availability.
At a time when five million people are on social housing waiting lists in the UK, and social housing new builds have shrunk to almost nothing, such concerns are not surprising.
The debate over social housing allocation and immigration garnered further attention this week with the publication, by Migration Watch, of a paper on the subject, and associated media coverage by Frank Field. As might be expected from this pressure group, the paper argues that immigration is placing great pressure on social housing in London.
At the same time, the Metropolitan Migration Foundation published polling data suggesting that 66% of people consider birthplace to be irrelevant when allocating social housing. In other words, most people want fairness. But what is the way forward in this most heated of issues?
Even by Migration Watch’s standards, their paper on social housing was a badly researched attempt to raise tensions. It concluded that 11 per cent of social housing lets in London go to foreign nationals: in a city where 37 per cent of the population is foreign-born, what can you expect?
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Their paper was an attempted riposte to research by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, published in 2009, showing that migrants are overwhelmingly housed in the private rental sector, both in London and elsewhere. The research showed that of the migrants to have arrived in Britain over the past five years, only 11% had been allocated social housing – a group that largely comprised refugees granted sanctuary in the UK.
The reality is that many new migrants simply do not qualify for social housing. Those who come to the UK through work visa or student routes are barred from social housing by their immigration status.
The UK sponsor of a spouse or partner has to show that they can house that person, under no recourse to public funds rules, before the overseas spouse is admitted to the UK. Migrants from the European Economic Area have to show a local connection and prove that they have not made themselves homeless by moving to the UK.
Still, arguments about statistics and entitlements are not going to defuse tensions about the impact of immigration on social housing allocations. There are very real perceptions that UK citizens are not treated fairly when it comes to social housing – perceptions that progressives need to address.
In an attempt to address questions about fairness, the last Labour government produced new social housing allocation guidance in 2009 that enabled local authorities to pace greater weight on local connections and waiting time.
This guidance led to minor changes to local authorities’ letting procedures – social housing applicants were, in some cases, awarded a few more points for a local connection. (This had some unintended consequences, since awarding points for a local connection can discriminate against people who want to move to find work.) Yet these changes offered the public little reassurance.
In turn, the coalition government used the Localism Act 2011 to make substantial changes to social housing allocation. The Act allows local authorities to grant time-limited social tenancies, as well as discharge their duties to provide social housing by supplying privately rented accommodation. In future, social housing will no longer represent housing security, but a patchwork of tenancies – a condition that can only inflame resentments and misconceptions.
At the same time, social housing new builds have shrunk to almost nothing. Between April 2010 and March 2011, Homes and Communities Agency statistics show that there were 10,965 social housing starts on site in London. In the six months to 30 September 2011, this figure had shrunk to 56 new social housing starts on site in London. This is a truly shameful statistic.
We need a different approach. We need much greater local transparency in the allocation of social housing. There could be much more involvement of local people in drawing up social housing allocation policies. We need to afford local authority housing officers the time to talk to those on waiting lists about the processes, and why there is a long wait for social housing.
Local politicians need also to listen to concerns about housing, while addressing misconceptions. Talking about migration helps: a study from the Institute for Public Policy Research looked at examples of how tensions about housing had been successfully defused by sensitive but pro-active local leadership. But above all, we need to build more social housing.