Downing Street wants to give UK families higher priority for social housing in a controversial scheme that will be badged as “British homes for British workers”, the Guardian can reveal.
Officials will launch a consultation in the coming weeks into how they can give British citizens faster access to social housing, a move designed in part to bolster Rishi Sunak’s reputation for being tough on immigration.
But the move has prompted anger from some in government, who warn it could further fuel support for the rightwing Reform UK party. Housing experts say it is likely to be either illegal or unworkable, or both.
Polly Neate, chief executive of the housing charity Shelter, said: “This policy amounts to nothing more than scapegoating at its worst. It is unnecessary, unenforceable and unjust. Not only does it ignore the fact that there are already stringent rules so only UK citizens or those with settled status can access homes for social rent, but it blames a group of people for a housing emergency that they did not create.”
Advisers to the prime minister originally wanted to include a “British homes for British workers” bill in the king’s speech, but decided instead to focus on reform of the rental and leasehold markets – both priorities of the housing secretary, Michael Gove.
In recent weeks, however, the prime minister has been buffeted by polls showing his party heading for a defeat on the scale of 1997, as well a high-profile call for his resignation from a former cabinet colleague, Simon Clarke. He also faces a bruising confrontation with members of the House of Lords over his bill to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
With N0 10 looking for ways to boost the party’s ratings on immigration, officials are looking again at the “British homes for British workers” scheme, and are planning to release a consultation early next month setting out its options.
Under current rules, local housing authorities are meant to decide social housing allocation based on need, giving priority to those who are homeless or living in overcrowded or squalid conditions. Refugees are allowed to claim social housing, but anyone who is not entitled to benefits is not, meaning most foreigners in the UK are already excluded.
The latest government figures show that 90% of the lead tenants in social housing are British citizens. In certain areas, however, that figure is much lower. In the London borough of Brent, 40% of new social homes were let to foreign nationals in 2021-22, while in Southwark the figure was 29%.
Under changes introduced under Gordon Brown’s government, housing providers trying to choose between two households of roughly equivalent need should take into account how long they have lived in the area or whether they have local family connections. Those changes were criticised at the time for equating to “British homes for British workers”, but those under consideration by the current government are expected to go further.
Since then, pressure on social housing has increased hugely thanks to a sharp drop in new housing supply. Nearly 40,000 new socially rented properties were added to the market in England in 2010-11, but by 2022-23 that figure had dropped to 9,561.
The relative lack of social housing, coupled with record immigration levels, has left ministers looking for a way to prioritise British people on the waiting lists. One option would be to discriminate on the basis of nationality, but such a move is likely to fall foul of equalities law.
A more plausible change would be to bar refugees from gaining access to social housing, but this would be controversial given that those who have successfully been given refugee status are supposed to be allowed full access to social benefits. Those who have come to the UK under the Ukrainian or Afghan resettlement schemes are likely to be protected, however, sources said.
Ministers could also seek to strengthen the rules introduced by the Brown government so that people have to show they have stronger or longer connections to an area before being given priority for housing.
Neate said: “For decades, we’ve lost more social homes than we’ve built, leaving us with a huge shortage and condemning homeless families to years on a waiting list with no hope of a stable home. If the government wants to do something that would genuinely tackle the housing emergency, there’s a clear solution – we need to build 90,000 social homes a year.”
The plan was due to be announced this week, but was postponed at the last minute after some officials warned that it would look bad to do so in the same week that Grenfell Tower victims were testifying about their experiences.
No 10 instead wants to push ahead with the announcement early next month, though it is unclear which minister will be placed in charge.
Some in government believe, however, that any policy proposals are unlikely to be implemented in time for the election. “This looks like a piece of electioneering more than anything else,” said one government source.