The belief that those who have lived in a community longest should have housing priority isn't racistby Julian Baggini / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
When the Labour minister Margaret Hodge said that long-term British residents should be given higher priority for social housing than recent immigrants, she knew that she was entering dangerous territory. “In our open, tolerant country, there are… few issues that remain taboo,” she began her Observer article. “But, motivated by the fear of both legitimising racism and encouraging the extreme right, migration is one.”
The response to the piece proved that she was right. Shelter’s chief executive Adam Sampson said, “These comments perpetuate the myth that social homes are given to new immigrants coming to the UK at the expense of the indigenous population.” Ken Livingstone weighed in, saying, “Hodge’s suggestion that housing allocation should be based not on need but factors like length of residence would be catastrophic for community relations.”
The recurring theme of the criticisms was that Hodge’s words were fuelling racism and creating social tensions. However, in all the uproar, there was little clarity about the issue of principle Hodge was raising: should public services be delivered solely according to need, or should entitlement be based at least partly on how much one has contributed to the society providing those services? Call the latter view the “priority principle.”
The argument that Hodge was “perpetuating a myth” fudges the issue of whether the priority principle is sound. The housing experts, like Sampson, acknowledged that the priority principle is operating, but failed to say whether they thought it was a good thing or not. Livingstone, by contrast, rejected the principle and hence implicitly criticised Barking and Dagenham council, which apparently does take length of residence into account in allocating social housing.
Whether or not Hodge is right to say there is a problem with housing policy, it is surprising that the centre and left failed to give explicit support to the priority principle, since it is…