Sunday, 31 October 2010

Housing: the cruellest lottery of them all.

We all love a flutter on the lottery, at least we do unless the stake is the roof over our heads. The government’s plans to reform housing benefit and rents for social housing could, campaign groups say, create just such a lottery.

Under plans announced as part of the comprehensive spending review housing benefits will be capped at £ 400 per week and the government has announced plans to allow landlords providing social housing to charge tenants rent at 80% of the market rate. A move that could see people on low incomes, pensioners and benefits claimants priced out of London and many other major cities.

A spokesperson for one London borough told the press on Friday that he welcomed the plans because, ‘Anything that introduces more flexibility is a good thing.’ Charities that campaign on housing issues have been, with good reason, rather less sanguine. The homelessness charity Shelter has raised concerns that landlords will raise rents for tenants in social housing without having given proper consideration to their ability to pay.

The National Housing Federation has also expressed concern that many families on low incomes in London and other major cities will struggle to meet higher rental costs, their calls is backed by a survey carried out by the TUC and the Fabian Society, which found that 49% of people living in private rented accommodation and 66% of people in social housing would struggle if benefits were to be cut in line with government plans. As a result they could be forced to move to the outer suburbs of large cities or smaller towns in cheaper parts of the country, fracturing families and putting extra pressure on councils at a time when they are being obliged to cut spending by up to 30%.

Brendan Barber of the TUC attacked the thinking behind the government’s plans saying ‘ministers want us to believe that housing benefit is going to what they would call work-shy scroungers, yet in reality only one claimant in eight is unemployed. The rest are mainly low income working households, pensioners and the disables.’

London Mayor Boris Johnson, never knowingly under exposed, captured the headlines by making a similar point in more colourful language by claiming the plans would amount to a ‘Kosovo style social cleansing’ of London. A storm of protest led by Liberal Democrat Employment Minister Ed Vasey forced him to retract his comments, but however silly the way it was expressed the Blonde Bombshell has a point.

Cutting housing benefits and raising the rents on what little social housing exists will cause untold suffering for many people, people by the way that the new model Conservative Party pledged to care for during the downturn, it will change the nature of our cities and do much to further entrench social inequalities.

What is Her Majesty’s loyal opposition planning to do about this? Labour leader Ed Milliband told the Scottish Labour Party conference this week that he would force a vote in parliament on the issue and called on disgruntled Lib Dem backbenchers to ‘join us, vote against these unfair and unworkable changes and force the government to think again.’

Fighting talk of the sort you would expect from an opposition leader, although he seems a little naive to be making an appeal to the conscience of the Liberal Democrats or expecting the Tory half of their arranged marriage to think again, they did precious little of that to start with. It is certainly a more productive activity that reading memos such as the one he, allegedly, received this week advising him to pepper his performances at PMQ’s with more jokes.

Actually given Harriet Harman’s unfortunate comparison between Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and a ‘ginger rodent’ it might be a good idea for the Labour front bench team to avoid the funnies for a while.

Elsewhere in his speech to the party faithful in Scotland Ed Milliband said that Labour must ‘stand up for the truth’; quite so, but some of the truths might not be particularly palatable. The largest and most uncomfortable such truth is that during their thirteen years in power Labour did little or nothing about social housing.

Why could that be? Maybe they felt talking about such things smacked a little too much of socialism, a naughty word in New Labour circles because it is linked to awkward ideas such as there being better motivations than self interest. Perhaps they feared making the same mistakes as other governments had over social housing, building estates that all too quickly attracted the ‘sink’ tag from the tabloid press.

Whatever the reason they fiddled while more and more Britons lost the ability to pay for the roof over their heads, fighting these ill thought out and potentially disastrous plans will only be the start of what they must do to make amends for not acting when they had the chance.

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