Margaret Hodge, minister of state for industry and the regions and MP for the east London constituency of Barking, has suggested that long-standing British residents should be given priority over immigrants in relation to housing. Her comments smack of a desperate desire to stop Labour voters from supporting the far-right British National Party (BNP). What they reveal is how out-of-touch ministers are with the people they govern and how sensitive an issue housing has become.
In the Observer last Sunday, Hodge wrote: 'We prioritise the needs of an individual migrant family over the entitlement others feel they have. So a recently arrived family with four or five children living in a damp and overcrowded, privately rented flat with the children suffering from asthma will usually get priority over a family with less housing need who have lived in the area for three generations and are stuck at home with the grandparents. We should look at policies where the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by the indigenous family overrides the legitimate need demonstrated by the new migrants.' (1)
If the indigenous family in question is stuck at home, it's got little to do with immigrants. The real problem is that too few new houses are being built. In 2006, just 167,000 new homes were completed in Britain (2). That's up, the government tells us, on the 2000 figure - but that figure was the lowest since the Second World War. Two weeks ago, I joined protesters outside Gordon Brown's Brighton speech who were angry at rocketing house prices that make it near-impossible for most people to get on the property ladder (3).
Just to replace the UK's existing housing stock, Britain needs to build 266,000 new homes every year - something we've consistently failed to do. John Stewart, economist to the House Builder's Federation, has worked out that the consequence of this snail-like replacement rate is that homes being built today will have to stand for 1200 years!
And then there are the homes we need to build, over and above that, for the new households in Britain. By the government's reckoning that is around 200,000 extra houses each year (4). A lot of that new demand is because of changing lifestyles. Since the 1970 Equal Pay Act, women have been joining the workforce in greater numbers, and bringing home wages. Those wages are the basis of mortgage applications. Conservatives bemoan the loss of the nuclear family, and maybe they have a point, but no one wants to see a return to the days when women had no economic independence. The net effect is that there are more, if generally smaller, households than there were, and we need more dwellings to house them.
Lastly, there is immigration. Recent numbers have been quite high with 160,000 more people entering the country than leaving it each year. This is the background to Hodge's outburst. But it is a big mistake to blame these migrant workers for the housing shortage. They are in many cases the people making the houses. One construction boss says that 70-80 per cent of his workers are not English speakers (5).
The problem is not immigration, it is the low number of new homes being built. While the government says the number we need to build is 200,000 a year across the UK, Britain has fallen short of that figure in seven of the years since New Labour was elected in 1997. And the target is way too low in any event because they have forgotten that homes need to be replaced.
Instead of doing something about the problem, Margaret Hodge says that residents should get houses before immigrants, whether or not they need it more. But playing people off against each other on the basis of where they are from can only make racial divisions worse.
How did a liberal-minded person like Margaret Hodge end up shouting for a racist housing policy? Most likely, she is not personally racist. She has a reputation for being very left-wing (the red flag flew over Islington Town Hall when she was council leader in the 1980s). But she is part of a government that has failed to build the houses people need.
At the last election, Hodge panicked at the canvassing returns that told her that the BNP were doing well in her constituency. Like a lot of her cabinet colleagues, Hodge has little feel for how ordinary people think, and was surprised that they are so angry with the government. Nor does she seem aware that the BNP's support is not very committed, but is just seizing on an issue to express their disaffection. Instead of fighting to win the argument that immigrants are not the problem, Hodge is determined to try and outmanoeuvre the BNP on the right, in New Labour-style 'triangulation'. Such a strategy can only end up making those prejudices seem more sound than they really are by giving them ministerial approval.
It is gruesome to see culturally-liberal New Labour politicians repeating the same Old Labour housing policies that ended up with Tower Hamlets' housing stock being racially segregated under the late Peter Shore's 'friends and neighbours' housing policy in the 1970s. But that is the outcome when you have a government that is too frightened of the Campaign to Protect Rural England to build new homes, and too frightened of the voters to argue with them.
James Heartfield is author of Let's Build: Why We Need Five Million Homes in the Next 10 Years
- A message to my fellow immigrants, Observer, 20 May 2007
- Communities and Local Government Statistical Release, House Building: January to March Quarter 2007, 17 May 2007
- PricedOut, 13 May 2007
- See James Heartfield, Let's Build: Why we need five million homes in the next ten years, chapter one, Audacity, 2006
- Andrew Geddes, Immigrants get older, too, Foreign Policy Centre