IN 1997, in his first speech as prime minister, Tony Blair visited the Aylesbury estate in south London and promised to help its “forgotten people”. In 2005 Michael Howard, the leader of the Conservative opposition, went to the estate, by then widely referred to as “hell’s waiting room”, and declared that nothing had changed. Since then Aylesbury has been a barometer for how well governments are tackling urban squalor. In 2016, improvements are not obvious. Graffiti covers much of the estate; rubbish blows past kicked-in doors.

Although some things have changed little, the make-up of estates’ tenants has shifted dramatically. Shrinking stock (in the 1970s almost one-third of Britons lived in social housing, whereas now under one-fifth do), along with policy tweaks which prioritise those most at risk, mean that vulnerable people feature more largely. The sick or disabled made up 8% of social renters in 1993-94; they reached 15% in 2013-14.

More surprisingly, social tenants have got younger: retirees made up around 40% in 1993-94, but 20 years on the proportion had shrunk to 30%. One explanation is that Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” policy, enacted in 1980, allowed residents who would now be of retirement age to acquire their council homes at knock-down prices. Another, according to Mark Clapson of the University of Westminster, is that young people, facing a hard job market and soaring rents, are now more likely to qualify for social housing, whereas pensioners have been getting wealthier (see article).

 This may also help to explain why social tenants increasingly live alone. In 1994-95 the proportion of one-person households in the social-rented sector was very close to that in the private sector (39% and 38% respectively), whereas by 2013-14 41% of social renters lived by themselves, compared with 26% of private renters.

Another change is that a greater proportion of social tenants are now in work: 37% in 2013-14, up from 27% two decades earlier. Alan Murie of Birmingham University thinks it might be explained by newly exacting social landlords, some of whom, he says, exclude people who have been in arrears with rent. Waiting lists for social housing lengthened in 1997-2012 (though they have since fallen back); those on the economic margins may have end up renting privately as an emergency measure, rather than face a long wait. A 2011 law allows councils in effect to force those in need of housing to rent privately rather than join the waiting list for social homes.

These demographic changes have had more impact in some places than others, says Mr Murie, who divides Britain’s social housing into three types. The more desirable, modern flats, he says, are probably absorbing some of the new crowd of young, single workers. Pre-war estates—low-rise, spacious and suburban—are still filled with retirees who do not wish to move out. So unpopular post-war estates like Aylesbury—badly maintained high-rise blocks in city centres—are where the poorest and most vulnerable concentrate.

Some worry that putting the most marginalised in the same place will lead to worse outcomes than social mixing. The Fabian Society, a think-tank, cites evidence from the British Household Panel Survey that a person’s chances of leaving poverty are reduced if they live in a poor area.

A new government policy accelerating the right to buy is likely to change estates’ demography again. Whereas people who buy council stock in suburban estates generally stay there, those who buy in 1960s inner-city estates tend to sell up quickly, often to buy-to-let landlords. Aylesbury residents claim that these landlords fail to maintain their properties; their tenants leave rubbish out to rot and “bring the whole tone down”, says one. Developers who complained about problems on the Lee Bank estate in Birmingham were surprised to find they were caused by private renters, not social ones.

Source – The Economist