Cold comfort for housing benefit

Posted by Alexander Hay

It's time to stop picking on benefit claimants and start building more houses

Christmas is the cruellest time of year, when it's coldest, when the nights are ever longer, where everyone is mandated to be 'happy' (read: Drunk) and the pain of being alone and on limited income is made all too clear.

With that in mind, the coalition government, in its wisdom, has decided to cut housing benefit for pensioners.

Where to begin with why this is wrong? Let's start with the fact that some 80,000 pensioners rely on Housing Benefit in one form or another. That doesn't take into account their extended families and social networks who would otherwise have to take up the burden, nor charities who have their proverbial hands full already.

Austerity measures to counter our past excesses is all very well, but penalising the elderly (and for that matter, the disabled and families with children) screams FALSE ECONOMY. True, money can be saved in rehousing them somewhere cheaper, like Hastings or somewhere in Kent, but in the process, they'll lose their social ties and everything they've ever known.

So let's begin with the first objection: Ideology. There are a fair few politicians, commentators and one noted historian who think it's acceptable to push the poor and the old out of affluent inner cities, completing a sort of social cleansing that began in the 1980s when house prices began to shoot up. "They can just live in the suburbs" seems to be the argument, or Slough if they're really unlucky. The implied message is this: “We pay our taxes and they don't. Is that fair?”

Yes it is, because societies that don't look after their vulnerable aren't societies. Nightmares red in tooth and claw, perhaps, but not societies. There are always extreme examples of the housing benefit system being abused. Yet the day-to-day lives of pensioners who rely on benefit don't make the papers. Tax is, ultimately, not a protection racket but an insurance policy.

A sizeable wing of the Conservative party thinks otherwise. In fact, if we look back 10 years ago, the then opposition was already planning an end to housing benefit, replacing it with a centralised (and capped) system that would have reined in costs. Then, as now, the aim was a sort of ideological purity. "Cut back the state" seems, in fact, to be the primary goal here.

Whether the human cost would be worth paying is neither here nor there. In any case, this unspoken hatred of the other has all the public support the ConDem government needs - 58% either think the government is hard enough or should be harder. 66% see no harm making people move if they can no longer afford their rents, post-capping.

Then there is the re-casting of private landlords as villains, who charge sky high rents and make housing benefit grow to keep up. Yet painting buy-to-let landlords as scapegoats is disingenuous in the extreme.

Remember, they quite legally bought their properties. They charged market rents, again quite legally. And their tenants quite willingly undertook to pay those rents, again all within the law. The (perfectly legal) housing benefit system then stepped in to help those who could no longer afford the rents that had gone up as a result.

It may be hard to like some of them, but landlords have done nothing wrong. They have simply applied the free market principles that our current government keeps close to its heart. Besides, the statistical data used to justify the government's measures is itself rather suspect.

But we're still ignoring the main issue here. If the Irish built too many houses, our problem lies in the fact we don't build anywhere near enough. That, and not 'spongers' is the root problem behind big housing benefit bills.

In fact, the number of habitable houses is going down. We need to build 266,000 new houses a year just to maintain the present stock we have. in 2008, only 100,000 were built. Combine this with the fact that we also need enough houses for the nigh-on 1.8 million people who are stuck on waiting lists and the scale of the issue we face becomes clear.

Meanwhile, the 'Green Belt' has doubled in size since its inception in 1955 and only 9.8% of the country is built-up. It seems a ruthless, self-interested combination of NIMBYism, hypocrisy, spite and a reluctance to lower property values by increasing supply is the real problem here. But let's pick on the easy targets instead: The poor, the old, the vulnerable. 

Our priorities, as ever, are hopelessly skewed.

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Alexander Hay


Property crisis: a room with a view?

The shortage of affordable housing in the UK is impacting on councils, renting tenants and prospective buyers. Current new builds barely scratch the surface of the property targets and our own NIMBY-ism has also contributed to the situation.

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  2. 50% We should regenerate 'brownfield' sites
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