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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 June 2007, 07:34 GMT 08:34 UK
Q&A: Social housing
A shortage of low cost "social housing" is causing misery for families in many parts of the UK. We explain what has caused it and what the government proposes to do.

What is social housing?

The term covers housing owned either by the local authority or housing associations, which is rented out, usually to people on low incomes.

Why is there a shortage of it?

The number of homes available to rent from local authorities has been cut dramatically. More than 1.5m homes have been sold off since the Conservative government introduced "right to buy" legislation in the 1980s. At the same time, there has been a big increase in the number of households, thanks largely to the growth in people living alone. Soaring prices have also locked many of them out of the housing market. Housing associations have struggled to keep pace with demand.

How big is the problem?

The Treasury-sponsored Barker report said in 2004 that Britain needs to build 140,000 new homes a year - of which 23,000 should be social housing units - if housing supply is to meet demand. The Lib Dems say there are 1.6m families on waiting lists for social housing - compared to 1m in 1997.

Who lives in social housing?

In the first decades after the Second World War, people with a broad range of incomes lived in social housing, but since the 1980s new lettings have been focused on those deemed to be in the most need. Tenants are now more likely to be on low incomes or jobless. Tenants have a high rate of disability and more likely than others to be lone parents or aged over 60. More than 25% of all ethnic minority householders are social tenants.

Why is it causing such a row in the Labour Party?

Labour's inner city heartlands have been hit hard by housing shortages. There are more than 8,000 families on the waiting list in Margaret Hodge's Barking constituency alone. There is concern Labour voters are turning to the BNP, which blames the shortages on immigration. Labour's left blames the shortage on Tory "right to buy" policies and the government's reluctance to build more council houses.

How do you get on the list for social housing and who decides the pecking order?

Anyone can apply for social housing, but in most areas the demand is much higher than the number of homes available. Councils must publish details of which groups have priority, generally using a points system. "Reasonable preference" must be given to the homeless, those in insanitary, overcrowded or unsatisfactory housing, and people who need to move on medical or welfare grounds, or people at risk of domestic violence or intimidation.

Other factors that may be taken into account are financial circumstances, and the amount of time someone has been on the waiting list. Some housing associations only provide homes for certain types of tenants, such as people with disabilities, or young people.

Can immigrants jump the queue?

Some foreign nationals are eligible for social housing but they are selected on the same criteria as everyone else on the waiting list. Asylum seekers and those from outside the European Economic Area are not eligible for social housing. Asylum seekers are generally provided with accommodation by the Home Office.

Why don't local authorities just build more council houses?

Under strict rules brought in by the previous Conservative government, local authorities are not allowed to spend the money raised through rents on building new council houses. Subsidies are channelled instead to housing associations although the emphasis has shifted from reducing housing costs to helping people pay private rents.

What does the government propose to do about the housing shortage?

In February, Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly said 30,000 new social housing units would be built in 2008. Chancellor Gordon Brown has said it will be a top priority in the next public spending round. But the government does not believe building more council houses is the whole answer. It also wants to help people on to the property ladder by promoting part-rent, part-mortgage schemes.

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