7 August 2012
We are heading for
the biggest housing crisis
in the UK's history
Govan. Photograph by Islay McLeod
Here's another fine mess they are getting us into. The Cameron-Clegg administration, that is. Despite many other handbrake-turns, the coalition is resisting all pleas to reconsider welfare reform, its most ill-conceived and unworkable policy.
As a housing worker I speak with experience from the front-line, but voices like mine are never listened to. Iain Duncan-Smith may have spent an afternoon in Easterhouse but it takes first-hand experience to understand the real housing issues.
The benefit plans are inept and disconnected from reality. They seem to rest on a deep-seated, unspoken assumption that many if not most council and Housing Association tenants are lazy, feckless and workshy. These scammers 'cheat the system', squandering the hard-earned money of respectable taxpayers.
I don't usually throw things at the television, not even at Jeremy Clarkson. I was tempted the other night though, when a smugly-suited man from a thinktank told me that social housing was the cause of our social problems, not a cure for them. It seems that the dependency culture is to blame. We have made it too easy for people to idle their time away watching day-time TV.
The evidence for this view, as I understand it, is pitifully thin. Of course some families have been out of work for generations and it is true that our benefits system creates perverse incentives. But these people didn't devise the system – the politicians did. Attempting to link the development of a so-called 'underclass' with social housing is disingenuous. If the market doesn't provide housing, then what are people supposed to do? Live in shanty towns?
Unlike the stars of TV's 'Shameless' – probably the nearest most politicians get to the world of social housing – the majority of the housing needy are ordinary people trying their best to cope with desperate situations. They may be unable to afford their private let, or they may see their mortgage default coming and have no way of avoiding it. Such people struggle not to present as homeless and they hate the thought of being dependent on the state.
Recently, I advised a man in an averagely-expensive private let – a single parent with three young children. Even maximising his benefits left him barely £400 a month to live on, once his household bills were paid. That's £400 for four people: food, clothing, bus fares, and everything else. He could pay half that rent in a council house but we don't have one to give him. He is low priority and will never be offered a tenancy.
So, here is a hard working responsible individual, bringing up three children and holding down a job. Without relatives to help him with child care, he would be forced out of work, because paying for it would be unaffordably expensive. As it is he is struggling. And now he is going to have to struggle harder because his housing benefit is to be cut. Not an unusual story, in my part of the world.
There are lazy stay-a-beds in social housing as in every tenure. Owners may be lucky enough to have an income from a pension or trust fund that allows a life of idleness. Laziness isn't the prerogative of the working classes.
In spite of all the evidence, though, an obsession with dependency is driving coalition policies that will put severe pressure on social housing providers. In Scotland at least we are protected from madcap Westminster ideas, like forcing council tenants to pay 80% of private market rents. But the system will break here, too. It will be unable to cope with the influx of homeless people, once the benefit reforms begin to bite.
The coalition is oblivious, needless to say. In fact it is adding to the problem by paying benefits direct to claimants. Whereas just now the government gives rent allowances to tenants' landlords, soon claimants will get a lump sum of benefit cash, in their own hands. They can spend it as they like. Most are responsible with money but some will not budget for their rent, escalating evictions.
We are heading for the biggest housing crisis in the UK's history, yet the government isn't listening. No one seems to be able to get through to them. I used to believe that academics could influence policy, but as one told me recently, governments only ask their advice once things have gone wrong. Housing officers, who understand the issues better than anyone, are ignored completely.
So where do these ideas come from? Usually the big policies are dreamt up by party 'policy wonks', bright back-room boys, often fresh from Oxbridge with a suitcase of shiny ideologies. Pressure groups, thinktanks and lobbyists are influential too.
This top-down policy-making is symptomatic of the arrogance of modern governance. Have Scottish teachers been asked whether the Curriculum for Excellence is workable? Were artists consulted about the bizarre funding priorities of Creative Scotland? Of course not. Decisions on all such issues are taken by self-consciously 'smart' policy-makers, who know little about the front-line and scorn to find out. If the wonks could but see it, it is they who are truly 'Shameless'.
The author's identity has been concealed because to publish it might endanger his livelihood