Housing a Metaphor for Social Inequality; as the Government Determines to Break Down the Class Barriers Thrown Up by Social Housing, Kevin Gulliver, Interim Director at the Human City Institute, Explains Why Housing Inequalities Are Set to Increase

The Birmingham Post (England), February 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

Housing a Metaphor for Social Inequality; as the Government Determines to Break Down the Class Barriers Thrown Up by Social Housing, Kevin Gulliver, Interim Director at the Human City Institute, Explains Why Housing Inequalities Are Set to Increase


Byline: Kevin Gulliver

The Government's review of social housing promises one of the biggest shake-ups of the sector in 20 years.

The review report, Ends and Means: The Future Roles of Social Housing in England', produced for Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly is the culmination of six months of research and consultation across the country.

The document, by Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics, signals major changes in social housing - a catch-all term for the country's four million council and housing association homes.

Since Birmingham has one of the largest concentrations of social housing in England (more than 68,000 council homes and 40,000 properties managed by charitable housing associations, representing 27 per cent of the city's total housing - compared to 20 per cent for the West Midlands and 18 per cent for England as a whole), the Hills' proposals affect the city disproportionately and set challenges to local social housing providers.

Chief amongst the headline-catching proposals is the creation of more 'mixed' neighbourhoods in terms of home ownership and social renting and the inevitable greater mixing of income groups.

Hills recommends that social landlords, like the city council and Birmingham's 50 housing associations, should try to unravel the concentration of poverty on many social housing estates and reverse decades of social polarisation by requiring social landlords to sell or rent out vacant homes on a commercial basis. Proceeds from sales and market rents would be used to buy properties in higher income areas for social tenants.

This has particular resonance across Birmingham. Looking at the housing breakdown of the 640 Birmingham neighbourhoods used for the Census 2001, shows 14 per cent have social housing as the majority tenure. Conversely, one in ten neighbourhoods have more than a 90 per cent concentration of home ownership. This means that around one quarter of all the city's neighbourhoods are socially polarised, as defined by Hills.

There is very little in the report to address chronic housing shortages in Birmingham and the wider West Midlands. The Government's own figures predict the West Midlands will see an increase of 16 per cent in the number of households living here over the next two decades. And, although now on a downwards trend, both homelessness and the number of people on social housing waiting lists are higher than a decade ago.

However, Hills sees these supply-and-demand issues as beyond his remit and prefers to concentrate on tackling perceived dissatisfaction with social housing.

While satisfaction among tenants is actually higher than for many private service industries, such as fuel and water, Hills still wishes to offer "a more varied menu" of housing choices to existing social housing tenants and new entrants into the sector in order to tackle dissatisfaction. …

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