The coronavirus pandemic has widened public discussion about who key workers are. In response to the Mayor’s proposals to prioritise key workers for ‘intermediate’ housing, Claire Harding looks at why defining these roles can be complicated.
Cities need a whole range of workers to function properly – health care, transport, emergency services, education, retail and so on. If a city can’t provide affordable housing for these workers, there is a risk that it will be impossible to recruit to these roles. This has become an increasing issue in London over the last couple of decades as house prices have risen far faster than earnings and mortgages have become harder to come by as lending criteria have tightened. Many key workers are forced into long commutes from the city fringes, or are able to live in London only because they live with a higher earning partner, or with parents, and so don’t have to pay the market cost for their housing.
One policy response to this is to prioritise key workers for so called ‘intermediate’ housing, which costs less than market rates but is earmarked for people who earn above the threshold for social housing. In London, this takes the form of either homes for affordable rent, or homes bought through the government’s Help to Buy scheme. Both can ultimately be considered as a targeted housing subsidy.
The Mayor of London is currently consulting on proposals of how this prioritisation could work: the consultation runs to mid-October. A key part of this is the definition of a key worker. Historically key workers have generally been assumed to be relatively low paid frontline public sector workers – nurses, firefighters and so on. But the coronavirus pandemic has widened public conversation about key worker roles – with private sector employees such as supermarket staff, energy suppliers and delivery drivers defined as key workers for the purposes of coronavirus regulations.
This acceptance that ‘heroes’ come in various jobs, and that these jobs are often poorly paid, is very welcome. But it raises a lot of questions about who key workers are. Subsiding housing and other services for certain groups will always be difficult because definitions are blurry around the edges. There are particular issues where so many of the lowest paid workers work for outsourced companies rather than directly for the public sector, and may be assigned to clean an ‘essential’ school one day and a ‘non essential’ office the next.
Some groups have more public support than others – nurses get much more love than NHS administrators, often derided as ‘faceless bureaucrats’, but both are essential to the functioning of the health service and their pay ranges are pretty similar. This lionising of the frontline over the back office has in part been driven by successive governments’ public sector reform efforts, which tend to imply that all administrative roles are overpaid and unhelpful. Similar arguments are sometimes used on the left, with commentators hinting that because they don’t like lorries which pollute the roads or fast food outlets which drive obesity, then they don’t like the staff who work in them. If we are to treat people fairly, we must take our views about whether jobs should exist out of the debate about the lives of people who currently do them.
More fundamentally, subsidies for certain groups of workers risks creating a moral hazard for employers. It is potentially much cheaper to get your low paid staff defined as key workers so they can access cheaper housing than it is to pay them a wage that reflect the true value of their work. Similar criticisms have been levelled at Universal Credit, which arguably allows employers to pay poverty wages knowing they will be topped up by the state. In public sector jobs it probably makes more sense to increase London Weighting to reflect the actual housing costs of living in London, but it seems vanishingly unlikely that Boris Johnson’s government, not generally fans of the capital and its people, will do anything of the sort. It may be that the messy reality of prioritising key workers for housing may be the only option if we are to keep the city supplied with the workers it needs.
Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.