The news that there are just shy of 9,000 households on Birmingham’s council house waiting list was greeted with the usual outrage from the angry end of the internet.
According to the social media warriors, or Russian sponsored fake news trolls, floods of illegal immigrants are getting all the houses.
Either that or the feckless, workless, knocked up at 15 and putting out kids by the dozen just to claim benefits families are also snapping up homes denying decent hard-working people a chance.
There are always anecdotes along the lines of “I was told I would be waiting five years, but a black or minority ethnic family or single mum with five kids and a different boyfriend every week have just moved in down the street”.
Investigations more often than not reveal these comments to be false or ignoring crucial information. It's emergency cases like people fleeing domestic violence, or whose house has become structurally unsound, flooded or who are massively overcrowded - for example seven people sharing two bedrooms - who jump the queue.
Others wait months like anyone else. Teenage parents are encouraged to stay with their own parents rather than get a place of their own.
In 2016 we dealt with the issue of the 50 new refugees Birmingham took from war-torn Syria . If there is ever a case for genuine refugee status it is someone fleeing the hell on Earth that is Syria right now, but even they don’t get a council house. The charity Refugee Action had to source their homes from elsewhere .
This was not always the case – back in the day it seemed to be a whole lot easier to leave school and get a council flat, especially with a child in tow. Immigrants who secured their UK status could also get on the council housing list and secure a property. It was always easier if you needed a smaller property, were not too worried about having a garden and not picky about which part of Birmingham you settled in.
But even this has changed dramatically. Now people are on waiting lists for years on end. Of the 9,000 waiting many are low priority and can forget ever getting to the top of the list. It’s not surprising there is high demand as the average rent on a council house is £80 per week and falling.
Private rents are much, much higher and the quality of housing much more variable.
So it is not surprising that those with council housing are looked on with envy by those still waiting and that certain elements use this to fuel their prejudices.
Britain is at breaking point we are told – yet there are about 5,000 homes in Birmingham which have been empty for more than six months .
There are also about 5,000 homes with planning permission for a year and no building work started. A more efficient housing market would get them built or occupied and smash that waiting list.
But the over-riding statistic which explains the growing difficulty of getting a council house in Birmingham is that during the 1980s Birmingham had twice as many houses as it does now. Back then with 60,000 more houses to go round supply was not a problem and they could be passed on to almost anyone who wanted one.
Across the UK the number of council houses fell from more than five million in 1981 to 1.6 million in 2016.
What changed was the flagship right to buy policy which saw thousands of tenants purchase their property, often at discount rates. Quite rightly the aspiration of home ownership was extended to people who previously had no prospect of joining the property ladder.
Even after a decade of right to buy, in 1994 the city council still owned 99,697 properties.
A lesser impact has been the transfer of some stock – such as on the regenerated Attwood Green and Castle Vale estates – to social landlords . And more recently a number of post war developments have been torn down.
Recently the combined impact has seen a decline of about 1,000 homes a year leading to the 61,000 council homes the city has today. Again many of those houses are still there providing shelter for citizens, and many of those demolished have been replaced.
The biggest problem was that until 2010, when rules were relaxed, councils were effectively banned by successive Governments from building new homes to replace those sold. Even now Birmingham, the largest council in the country, has only managed to complete 2,500 homes in five years – half what it has lost. The impact of this strangling of supply of affordable houses has been the inflated private housing market of recent decades.
At the time there were votes to be won from middle Englanders who watched the asset values of their properties increase.
Last year’s election result shows there are now perhaps more votes to be won from tackling the housing shortage – and the Government has finally put increasing housing supply at the heart of its policy program – starting with pledges to support funding for 300,000 new homes a year made in the autumn budget .
Last weekend Prime Minister Theresa May also announced plans to get local authorities to identify and release land and attacked private developers over the perverse financial incentives which encourage them to limit supply.
However, in a city like Birmingham social housing also needs to be part of the solution – whether its council or other community landlords – and they need to get building.