Imagine you are David Cameron. Or George Osborne. Or even Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister. Actually, imagine you are an amalgamation of Cameron, Osborne and Shapps, wandering around like a three-headed mutant intent on fixing ‘Broken Britain’ by instilling policies which are so detrimental and illogical that, when you first explain them to people, they think that you’re having a laugh. Got that? Good.
So you have the housing crisis. In an average borough in outer London, you have around 3,000 people on the housing register. The local council for that area will offer approximately 150 houses a year. Now that’s a pretty long wait. So, as an intelligent member of parliament, when you see the recession starting to really take hold and the effects of mass unemployment become apparent, with an increasing number of people facing repossession, falling into arrears, relying on benefits and being driven towards local authority housing, you consider introducing something called ‘affordable housing.’ Because that sounds really good. Who doesn’t want affordable housing? The only thing is, when you’re Cameron and Shapps, what you actually mean by ‘affordable housing’ is instilling rents which, on average, are two to three times higher than they were before. No joke. So if your rent was £126 a week to your social landlord or housing association, under new ‘affordable housing’, it will be £390 a week. This new ‘affordable rent’ is really great because, with all that extra money that people can’t afford to pay anyway, local authorities can fund new housing developments that people won’t be able to afford to live in.
So, obviously, Shapps is asked how this is going to work. How can you demand more money from people who have nothing? Surely the whole point in social housing is to provide something of a cushion to those who can’t fully support themselves? His answer is ‘housing benefit.’ Housing benefit will cover the cost; people won’t suffer. This decision, considering the conservatives are a government that is meant to be very focused on encouraging people back to work, seems a bit iffy. Someone working in the city wouldn’t be able to pay £390 a week for a 3-4 bedroom house so how could a low earner expect to fit the bill? It means that people have no other choice but to be on benefits.
But at least people have a home, albeit, one paid for solely by benefits, creating a system which actively discourages work. So that’s all fine - there’re very few jobs for people anyway. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, this is before the 2013 introduction of Universal Credit Check, which is going to put a cap on the amount of benefits a family can earn. So at the same time as ‘affordable rents’ are introduced, benefits are being taken away. Many critics have described this move as a ‘social cleansing’ of London (a city which will see the biggest rise in ‘affordable rents’) meaning that people will be driven out of their homes and into the suburbs, putting increasing pressure on the small housing stock in these boroughs, whilst separating people from their work, schools and support networks. London will become unaffordable to anyone who can’t pay ‘affordable rent’, creating a further divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. And, if people’s rents increase and their benefits decrease, whilst they fail to gain employment, the threat of homelessness is massive.
You might think that homelessness is something easily dealt with by the council. You might imagine that the tramp, sitting beside Old Street tube station, probably just didn’t fill in his forms properly. When, actually, unless homelessness would affect you more than the average person (because you are vulnerable through old age, have dependent children or have physical/mental health problems), you will not be seen as a ‘priority need’ and councils will have little obligation to help you. The temporary accommodation owned by councils, such as hostels and B&Bs, are full to the brim, meaning the definition of ‘vulnerable’ is going to become ever smaller. And if you don’t have enough emergency accommodation for homeless people, there will be a huge rise in rough sleepers, including people with mental health disorders. Because, whatever you think of people relying on benefits, now is not really the time to strip people of their necessities in order to encourage them back to work, when there is little work to encourage people back to. Larger cultural problems, like welfare dependency, are obviously an issue but increasing levels of homelessness will not tackle this problem. If there’s one factor that will generally always result in being unemployed it’s not having a home. If the government want to put a cap on benefits, they might be justified in doing that, but don’t do it at the same time as whacking people’s rents up and taking away their only means of paying it.
My main problem (probably because I’m not at direct threat of homelessness), is wording. Calling social housing ‘affordable’ before doubling or trebling the rent is like offering someone a present and then punching them in the face. If you’re going to punch someone in the face, which you probably will, at least do it straightaway. At least, then, you’re just a thug. Not a hypocritical creep bag who punches the little kid next to them when no-one’s looking.