Policy Exchange, a Conservative think tank, has come up with an innovative proposal for councils to sell council houses which become vacant and have a high market value and to invest the proceeds in providing social housing. It is particularly relevant in high house price areas like London where council tenants can be living in properties with a £1m+ price tag.
The debate has provoked the inevitable reaction from the left who wish they had thought of the idea but has also raised wider questions around the implications of social engineering. If these expensive properties are sold off to wealthy individuals (do they mean wealthy foreigners?) will councils be creating separate neighbourhoods for the rich and the poor? Many espouse a wish to see “mixed communities”. Does this make social, environmental and economic sense? I am not sure it does. Let’s look at the arguments.
Starting with the concept of mixed communities, imagine you pay £695k for a high quality, large family home on a new estate in a leafy Oxfordshire village. You move in and start to enjoy rural living. Within a short while, the house opposite is occupied. It is a lot smaller than yours and is one of a block of homes that have apparently been sold to a housing association after the local council decided to raise the social housing quota when the developers could not sell enough houses on the open market.
The new residents of this house are interesting. The main resident is a large woman with an unusual dress sense, given her shape and size. She has a cigarette permanently in her mouth. She seems to have quite a few children with varied ethnic origins. The children’s school attendance is poor to non-existent and they prefer to spend their time playing in the open plan area in front of their house where a huge number of large plastic toys are scattered. The woman also seems to attract the interest of local young men who frequently bring their rather elderly cars and leave them in a partially assembled state on the same open plan area. This is clearly a very social family; parties are a regular feature and last well into the early hours with deafening pop music blasting across the neighbourhood.
You can imagine the family who bought their £695m home are in despair and denial. Appeals to the local council, to the housing association and to the police meet with the same bland assurances about welcoming mixed communities and different life-styles. The family would like to build a nine foot hedge round their home but planners won’t allow it. The family finally lose control when they find hypodermic needles in their garden and their 14-year-old daughter is propositioned by one of the resident “car mechanics”. They put their house on the market at £595k.
At the other end of the scale is the “gated community” where access to an estate is through a solid gate with entrance controlled by a key or combination lock. There are people who throw up their hands in horror at the concept of a gated community but I am not sure I understand why. Unless they have lived in one and found themselves living next to a drug dealing cartel who have bought their way inside the gate? Consider the family that opted for a gated community, paying £695k for a canal side home in a gated area in one of England’s larger cities. They felt safe and secure behind their gates until more worldly-wise friends who were visiting commented on the tell-tale signs of designer drug use within the community and the local news carried stories of a high-class brothel being run from behind the secure gates. The management company seemed to have changed hands and was registered in Abu Dhabi. If the residents within the gate cannot exercise control over the unreasonable behaviour of some residents, their gates become a prison rather than a protection.
I think the problem exemplified in both of the above case studies is one of control over tenure. We believe an Englishman’s home is his castle but we worry when our castle is threatened. The problem with much social housing is the failure of registered social landlords to grasp the nettle of problematic tenants and to kick them out.
I can hear the lefties arguing that one person’s unreasonable behaviour is another’s chosen life style but that sounds like a weak and unacceptable excuse for inaction to me. People want decent homes with more space than present building standards provide and they want security from anti-social behaviour. They want their children to be able to walk and play around the estate without fear.
Where does this leave us? Is society a safer place if rich and poor; well-educated and less so; professionals and working class all live together cheek by jowl or will we have a more harmonious society if people are, somehow, grouped together into homogeneous groupings? There is a limit to which such social engineering can be carried out in any case but the obvious basis is by house price and by tenure. Should estates be designed with the most expensive private homes at one end, sliding down the price scale to the cheapest and then with the social rented housing all together? Both models – mixed housing and segregated – have been tried and I am not sure either extreme has been seen to be the answer.
What clearly does not work is huge estates of social housing like Blackbird Leys in Oxford or Bretch Hill in Banbury. They bring all sorts of problems but so do huge private housing estates with little individuality or community life. I think most successful cities and towns comprise smaller areas – call them villages for want of a better term – that are distinctive for a number of reasons and have a real sense of community. From my own patch, think of Grimsbury in Banbury or Jericho in Oxford; from further afield, think of Highgate in outer London or similar distinctive parts of many metropolitan areas.
Where our planning system seems increasingly to fail is in supporting the creation of sufficiently small and distinctive areas of housing that can become the Jericho or Highgate of tomorrow. Instead, we get modern developments that have no soul and no distinctiveness to help citizens develop a local identity and community. If we got better as a nation at doing this, we might break down the hostility in the more prosperous south to any housing development and we might build cohesive communities that were more at peace with themselves and their surroundings.