Creating More Just Cities by Supporting Social Housing Tenants Into Work

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Social housing estate of mixed developments in Birmingham. Photo by Roman Zwicky

This blog is based on a recent submission from the Just City project to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Housing and Social Mobility, available here. Liam discusses the many challenges faced by those living in social housing in relation to employment, social infrastructure, language and skills deficiencies, and what actions we can take to help tenants overcome these barriers.

Although the stock of social housing in the UK has greatly reduced since the introduction of Right to Buy in the 1980s, the sector still houses significant numbers of people – some 17% of the population lives in social housing, and waiting lists continue to be massively oversubscribed. Black Britons are disproportionately overrepresented in this form of tenure, as are those of Bangladeshi heritage. Social housing could therefore be a vehicle for overcoming issues facing these two minority communities, including lower than average rates of employment and lower incomes than average when in work.

Current evidence shows that living in social housing correlates with lower rates of employment. Households are more than four times more likely to be without work if they are in social housing compared to owner-occupied and privately rented accommodation. Social housing tenants are more likely to be deprived and struggle to cover day-to-day living costs. This is not a product of living in social housing in and of itself. Instead, multiple disadvantages intersect to create powerful barriers to social housing tenants accessing work and then progressing once they are in work.

A bus travelling through inner-city Birmingham. This form of public transport is not immune to the congestion that gridlocks the city at rush hour. Photo by Roman Zwicky

Such barriers can include a lack of basic social infrastructure, such as affordable childcare, or means to travel for work. Our research on the Just City project in Birmingham sought to understand patterns of segregation throughout the city and whether urban planning policy was orientated towards social justice goals. We found that an issue for those living in large housing estates on the urban periphery is a lack of reliable and cheap public transport. The estates are not meaningfully integrated into the wider city. With no economic centres nearby, residents on the estates have to look to the urban core for work. However, at peak times Birmingham essentially halves in size owing to the congestion on its roads. Journeys of half an hour at off-peak times can take well over one hour to complete, with buses often being stuck in slow-moving traffic along arterial routes into the city. The peripheral estates, such as Druid’s Heath, are not connected by train or tram into the centre, and residents cannot afford to run their own cars. This is a practical barrier to accessing work.

Research has found individual barriers too. These include a lack of confidence, a lack of up-to-date work experience, or insufficient education and qualifications. Social housing residents from outside the UK may have unrecognised qualifications. The USE-IT! programme, operated by anchor institutions across Birmingham, found 200 people in the small Icknield area of inner-city Ladywood alone who had overseas medical qualifications that had not been recognised. Rolling out a project of this nature across the city – and to fields beyond medicine – would likely find an untapped mine of shortage skills.

A crowd in central Birmingham. The city is one of the most diverse in the whole of Europe. Photo by Roman Zwicky

A further barrier is English language proficiency. This is an issue that does not receive the attention it deserves. 11% of the UK population has limited English language ability, with 2% not being able to speak English at all. This is particularly concentrated among women of South Asian heritage and men of Eastern European origin, two demographics that are overrepresented in Birmingham and the wider area. Lacking language skills is a barrier to these individuals finding work and can open them up to exploitation when they are in work owing to not knowing their rights.

Funding for language courses has been repeatedly cut due to austerity measures on local government, while demand on ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) services has been growing. Researchers have calculated that the cost of delivering ESOL to all who need it would be an extra £42 million per year. This is a relatively small sum of money for the government and cuts to the service ought to be reversed as a priority. Research from Australia shows that migrants’ degree of English language proficiency has a strong relationship with their participation in higher education and employment. A survey from the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank run by British Muslims, concluded that the lack of English language skills is the biggest skills-based barrier for Muslim women in the UK finding work.

It is not the design of social housing estates that is problematic, but rather the provision of support services for vulnerable residents (or lack thereof). Photo by Roman Zwicky

Much has been written of the ‘residualisation’ of social housing, whereby it increasingly functions as emergency accommodation for those with multiple complex needs. Several participants in interviews for the Just City project noted this, commenting that ‘we are not fixing the homelessness problem – we are merely moving it around’ owing to a cycle of personal crisis, failed tenancy and rough sleeping. Another participant commented that the concentration of people with substance addictions, poorly managed mental health issues, trauma (for instance after military service, domestic abuse, or experience of war in the case of asylum seekers) and people with recent migration backgrounds into one place creates dysfunctional communities. However, it does not have to be this way. International experience of social housing shows that it can be and is a force for good. The Vienna Model of social mixing on municipal housing estates and integration of services such as childcare into the developments is internationally acclaimed in this regard.

The policy recommendations from the Just City project were extensively referenced in a new report from the APPG on Housing and Social Mobility. Providing auxiliary services that help manage the needs of some of the most disadvantaged social housing residents is a crucial first step. This will help them build the stability required to move into work or access skills training. Targeted careers support run from the ground up – ideally informed by community research that feeds into holistic policy design – is the second step. Such interventions are not simply about helping people into work, but also supporting people to rediscover a sense of individual agency that may have been lost through difficult life experiences. The Just City research suggests that a little investment into support services for social housing tenants could go a long way towards creating more just cities and communities.

This blog was written by Liam O’Farrell, a Researcher at the University of Sheffield and a Research Associate of City-REDI / WM REDI, University of Birmingham. 

The opinions presented here belong to the author rather than the University of Birmingham.

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