The new homeless

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Kenneth Roy

An insight into the thinking of our new political masters is contained within a speech delivered a few days ago to the Chartered Institute of Housing by the former leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith. He made it clear at the start that his opinions were his own and not necessarily those of the party, but it would be surprising if they did not turn out to be influential, particularly as Mr Duncan Smith is the new secretary of state for work and pensions.

Kenneth Roy

An insight into the thinking of our new political masters is contained within a speech delivered a few days ago to the Chartered Institute of Housing by the former leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith. He made it clear at the start that his opinions were his own and not necessarily those of the party, but it would be surprising if they did not turn out to be influential, particularly as Mr Duncan Smith is the new secretary of state for work and pensions.
     His theme was social housing. He invited his audience to imagine the proverbial Martian arriving on these shores and being invited to go out and establish the purpose of social housing from personal observation. He fancied that on his return to civilisation this would be the visitor’s verdict:
‘Social housing is clearly there to separate the most disadvantaged, dysfunctional and vulnerable people from the rest of society. It’s an objective you have achieved very efficiently’.
     Is this true? I suppose it would depend where the Martian was directed. Mr Duncan Smith spent a lot of time during the Conservatives’ long years in opposition studying the problems of the poorest urban estates, the so-called ghettos. He was so affected by what he saw in Glasgow that he was inspired to set up his Centre for Social Justice.
     
His preoccupation with these deprived areas seems to have blinded him to the rest of Scotland, and perhaps England too though I am less familiar with the situation south of the border, where the Martian would encounter a very different scene. There are few towns and villages in Scotland which do not include a council estate and many of them are reasonably prosperous, fairly harmonious, economically functioning communities. The idea that these estates are populated by ‘the most disadvantaged, dysfunctional and vulnerable people’ in society is transparently
ridiculous. It is disturbing that the new secretary of state for work and pensions feels entitled to indulge in such generalisations.
     Remarkably, in the course of a long speech, Mr Duncan Smith made no
mention of the sale of council houses initiated by his predecessor Margaret Thatcher, a hotly disputed project which diminished the stock of publicly owned housing but gave many people an opportunity to become part of a new property-owing democracy. It was joked at the time that you could tell who had bought their council house by the new door. Much to the dismay of Mrs Thatcher’s ideological opponents, many new doors appeared. The typical estate was transformed into a mix of private and public ownership and looked generally more cheerful than it had ever done in the post-war era of bleak uniformity. Many of these houses are now being inherited by the children of Thatcher’s Britain.
     It is extraordinary that Iain Duncan Smith appears either to have forgotten this social revolution or feels that it is of so little importance as not to be worth considering. Even in the areas that more easily fit his simplistic stereotype, not everyone is completely helpless. If you watched the recent BBC documentary series ‘The Scheme’, set on a ‘notorious’ estate in Kilmarnock, you would have been intrigued by the decision of one of the ghetto-dwellers to sell up. She was last seen calling the estate agents.
     Let’s assume, however, that despite such oddities, Mr Duncan Smith is broadly correct that estates such as Onthank ‘separate the most disadvantaged, dysfunctional and vulnerable people from the rest of society’. What does he propose to do about them? ‘The biggest obstacle to improving outcomes for people in social housing’ is what he calls ‘endemic worklessness’.
     Worklessness has a judgemental quality. Unlike unemployment, a word he avoids, a word usually associated with a lack of employment opportunities for which the unemployed cannot be blamed, worklessness suggests a conscious decision not to work; a state of being; a culture. But just as Mr Duncan Smith neglects to mention the profound changes created for good or ill by the sale of so many council houses, he also seems to have a blind spot about the main reason for ‘endemic worklessness’ – the death of traditional industry all over Britain.
     
Mr Duncan Smith wants to break up the poorest estates. He has a plan. He visualises a future in which the poorest tenants will no longer be given security of tenure. ‘Social housing,’ he said, ‘is unique in our welfare system in so far as a temporary need can result in a significant and guaranteed lifelong benefit. Tenancies are secure for life, irrespective of any changes in circumstance. As a result of security of tenure, there is very little turnover of tenants in social housing’. Existing tenants with security of tenure ‘have planned their lives on that basis, and it would be wrong for the state to renege on its social contract with them. But going forward, we have to ask whether social housing providers always issuing secure tenancies is the best use of the stock’.
     Even in the new Britain unfolding before us, there may be some resistance to the notion that houses for the poor are no longer to be seen as homes but as places of temporary shelter. Mr Duncan Smith calls this social justice. Has he not considered the insecurity, social dislocation and unhappiness that would inevitably result? Has it not occurred to him that he is treating people and families as a resource, mere human capital at the disposal of the state? It is a horrible idea.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.