She hasn’t been in the job a fortnight and already she seems to have slipped on her own banana skin. New housing minister Caroline Flint made a speech to the Fabian society in which she suggested she wanted “to begin a debate” about who should and who shouldn’t live in social housing. It’s hardly a new debate. It’s that old chestnut about rewarding the deserving poor and punishing the undeserving or Shameless variety.
Trouble is this is a debate that should have taken place after World War Two when Britain embarked on its huge council house building programme. In the aftermath of that war, we thought there was no such thing as the undeserving poor, only a nation of war heroes who were owed good homes, free health care and a good education. By the 1970s, we could see just how naïve that world view was and Thatcher began the dismantling of the two-tier housing policy by selling off all the council houses.
What is strange is that new Labour has sought to re-ignite this failed policy by promoting affordable housing and keyworker housing. Indeed, the provision of lots of subsidised housing is the rationale behind its future housebuilding plans. Contrast this with Sweden, where there is no subsidised housing but instead the poor are given help with the rent. Can’t help thinking Sweden’s got it right, yet again.
Flint’s speech — or should that read outburst — probably marks her out as trouble. I can’t say I blame her: it must be very frustrating to be a free-thinking MP/minister and have to make speeches which just tow the party line. But it won’t get her very far (unlike Yvette Cooper, her predecessor, who never said a word out of place). Despite the fact that everyone from Shelter, to the Tory Party, to Gordon Brown’s private office, was at pains to disown her “debate”, she made a really telling point. If there is a points system for allocating social housing, why shouldn’t there be one for staying put as well? Underlying this is an even bigger question which she didn’t dare address. Why are we still building social housing?