The Great London Clearances by Joan Twelves

The Tories want to clear the working class out of London. The people who built our city, who create its wealth, who turned it into one of the greatest cities in the world are to be evicted so that the Tories and their friends can turn it into a heartless, soulless ghetto for the rich and useless.

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Nye Bevan’s vision of council housing when, as a key member of the post-war Attlee government, he led the building of a million homes was of a living tapestry of a mixed community where “the working man [sic], doctor and clergyman live in close proximity to each other”. His vision had at its heart a desire not only to provide decent homes, but also to enhance people’s life chances and help them make the most of their talents and abilities. It’s no surprise that the founder of the National Health Service should have understood only too well how people’s living conditions and their health and wellbeing are inextricably linked, that slums, poverty and squalor breed disease.

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The estate where I live is no longer just public housing – Thatcher’s right to buy drove a wedge through that. But all generations, many races, many cultures, many faiths, many nationalities, many occupations and none, live side by side, most renting, some owning. My neighbours are pensioners and children, care home workers, lecturers, child minders, computer programmers, architects, bank clerks, artists, rail workers, gardeners, plumbers, cleaners, taxi drivers and some it’s best not to ask. Probably no doctors, but plenty of health professionals. No clergymen that I know of, but plenty of working women. It is a rich, diverse, living tapestry. It is a community.

David Cameron’s misconceived, ill-informed vision of public housing is of “sink estates”, of “brutal high-rise towers” that breed “criminals and drug dealers”. He would have us believe that public housing has failed, that it needs to be razed to the ground and what little remains should only be made available for short periods of time to those “on low incomes or otherwise disadvantaged who would find it particularly difficult to find a home on the open market”.  In other words, sod that diverse, mixed, creative, stable community – let’s create some really grim, really brutal, really ‘sink’ estates where we can warehouse the criminals and drug dealers, but make sure they’re as far away from where we want to live as possible. In particular, we have to stop the lower classes living on that prime real estate in inner and central London that we want for our own.

 

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And this is what will happen if the Housing Bill isn’t stopped.

Because the Tories’ Housing and Planning Bill marks the end of public housing in this country, the demolition of Nye’s vision. It will mean

  • The end of secure lifetime tenancies
  • The end of low rents
  • The end of family homes in the inner city
  • The end of working class communities

It will have its most devastating effect on our great working class capital. London is to be socially cleansed, its land offered up for grabs to the highest bidder.

It is the Great London Clearances.

Those of us who live here can feel the vultures circling, just waiting for their chance to snatch the spoils.

But it’s not just London. Across the country thousands are threatened with being thrown out of their homes, no longer able to afford the rent, no longer sure how long they will have a roof over their heads, forced away from their friends, their families, their communities.

The Bedroom Tax has already caused untold misery – including driving people to suicide. The Benefit Cap has driven hundreds out of London. How many more victims do the Tories want?

The Tories are racing to get their plans through before opposition can build. They rushed the Bill through the Commons using EVEL (how appropriate!) in the middle of the night. Now it is in the Lords where attempts are being made – led, oxymoronically, by peers brought up on council estates – to ameliorate its worst effects, but time for debate has already been cut short.

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So, what exactly does this complicated Bill involve? Why is it so destructive?

  • It removes secure lifetime tenancies, limiting them to two to five years. This won’t just affect new tenants. Anyone needing to move home – domestic violence victims, overcrowded families, job changers – will get this new short-term tenancy, as may those whose partner dies or moves out. Tenants will be subjected to regular ‘needs tests’ to check whether they still deserve a home.
  • It imposes means testing and ‘pay to stay’ market-linked rents for nearly a quarter of a million households. In London this ‘Tenant Tax’ could mean overnight rent rises from £6,000 pa to £24,000 pa. There are no tapers, no exemptions.
  • It forces councils to sell their ‘high value’ property to the highest bidder. 113,000 homes in England are likely to be above the ‘high value’ threshold. Seven boroughs in central London alone could lose over 30,000 homes at a time when over 150,000 families are on waiting lists in the 20 councils likely to be hardest hit. Local authorities will be sent an annual bill by the Government regardless of whether or not anything has been sold or at what price. And where will all that money go? Will it be spent on homes, hospitals, schools? No. It will used to bribe housing association tenants to buy their properties.
  • It privatises public housing even further by extending Right to Buy to housing associations, selling off often charitably endowed properties at knock-down prices, bribing London buyers with a massive £104,000 handout to go and buy somewhere else – somewhere not-London – and encouraging Buy to Let absentee slum landlords.
  • It replaces the duty on developers to build affordable homes for rent with an obligation to build unaffordable, state-subsidised ‘starter’ homes for sale.
  • It massively cuts the money available for investing in public housing, both new build and maintenance and repairs, with nearly all social housing funding ended after 2018.
  • It opens the way for the wholesale privatisation and demolition of housing estates by designating them ‘brownfield’ (a designation previously used to mean a contaminated site), with no guarantees for existing tenants of being able to return and inadequate compensation for leaseholders.
  • It reduces travellers’ rights to have their housing needs properly assessed.
  • It will force millions more into private renting, into damp, overcrowded housing with no long term security and with no guarantee it is even fit for human habitation.

Nobody will be exempt – pensioners, single parents, families with children, those in work, those on benefits, domestic violence victims, people with disabilities and/or special needs – all will be hit one way or another.

 

What will it not do?

  • Solve the housing crisis – 1.8 million homes have been privatised since Thatcher introduced Right to Buy in the early 1980s – almost the same figure as the number of families currently on the waiting list. The lowest estimate of the effect of the measures in the Housing Bill is the loss of a further 80,000 council houses over the next four years.
  • Reduce the housing benefit bill – it is estimated it will add more than £200 million pa to the bill.
  • Help more first time buyers – to buy a starter home, costing nearly half a million in London, you will need an income of double the average wage, while increased rents will reduce any chance of saving for a deposit.

The table below from Shelter shows the different types of household who can (green) and those who can’t (orange) afford an average Starter Home. This just looks at whether their income is enough to secure a mortgage, not whether they have the deposit saved up. And it shows that London homes are out of reach to anyone but the very rich.

Earnings of couples, families and single people in England and London by 2020 (Earnings except national living wage from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings) Source: Shelter

Housing Benefit and Welfare Cuts

And while the Housing Bill is doing all this, George Osborne is busy imposing cuts to housing benefit to finish the job.

If the Housing Bill is underpublicised and little understood, then housing benefit rules are even more so.

The Local Housing Allowance maxima is used to work out how much private renters should get in HB based on locality and household size. It is being extended to the public sector because “that’s the fair thing to do”…. What this will mean is that pensioners will be bedroom taxed by the back door – they will now only receive HB for a one-bed flat instead of the rent for that 2/3 bed flat in which they brought up their family.

And up and down the country hostels for the homeless, domestic violence refuges and supported housing schemes are closing because no account is being taken of the additional costs of staff and support in HB payments. So embarrassed have the Tories become about this, they’ve delayed its implementation for a year to carry out “impact assessments”, something they are meant to do before they legislate.

But that’s not all.

  • The Benefit Cap is being reduced to £442 a week in London and £385 a week outside, making even temporary accommodation rents unaffordable.
  • The Shared Accommodation Rate will be extended to social housing so that single under 35s (previously under 25s) will only receive HB for a room in a shared house. And that room will invariably be privately rented as most social housing was built as homes for families, not multi-occupied bedsits.

And just to add to the misery – David Cameron’s much vaunted ‘negotiations’ in respect of the European Union include changing residency requirements so that anyone applying for social housing will need to have lived in the local area for four years instead of the current two. This won’t just apply to those coming to the UK from another EU country, but also to anyone moving within Britain.

 

Subsidies? What subsidies?

One of the myths we have to challenge is that public housing is subsidised.

There are two ways in which social housing is subsidised. One is the cost of building it in the first place – although it is arguable that this is not a subsidy but capital infrastructure investment, no different to spending on roads, railways or hospitals. In any case, the cost of building council homes in Harlow New Town in the 1950s was £2,000 each – how many times over has that been paid off from rental income? And so little social housing has been built in the last three decades that the bulk of any costs would have been paid off in rents years ago.

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Source: Shelter

 

The other form of subsidy is housing benefit – which is paid to renters, in work and out, in both the public and private rental sectors. The suggestion that all social housing tenants are in receipt of housing benefit is, of course, yet another way of perpetuating the council house/benefit scrounger myth. Not only are many social renters not HB claimants, but over 20% of those who do claim are in work (a percentage that has doubled since 2010), and over a third are pensioners.

The sector where HB is rising fastest is the private rental sector, which receives 40% of the £25 billion HB bill. In 2014/15 it was £9.5 billion; it is expected to rise to £10.8 billion by 2018/19. Not that it’s the tenants who are subsidised – it’s their landlords. Just as working tax credits subsidise low paying employers, so housing benefit subsidises both high charging landlords and low paying employers.

Which is why the most effective way to reduce the housing benefit bill is not the bedroom tax or the benefit cap but increased wages and pensions and private sector rent controls.

The Tories like the ‘big lie’. They do it all the time. Remember when nurses, teachers and street cleaners bust the banks? No, neither do I. But many people believe they did. The Pay to Stay Tenant Tax is based on another of these big lies – that there are ‘rich’ tenants who are being subsidised at taxpayer expense and who can afford to pay super-rents. These are the tenants who go out to work, do not receive housing benefit and therefore do not receive any subsidy.

downloadIt is like UKIP’s Schrödinger’s immigrant – the one who’s both lazing around on benefits whilst simultaneously out there stealing British jobs.

The Schrödinger’s tenant – the lazy benefit scrounger who simultaneously earns enough to pay the Tenant Tax.

 

Who will be subsidised?

At the same time as denouncing benefit-scrounging-subsidised-social housing tenants, the Tories are introducing two massive new subsidies in the Housing Bill – the £100,000+ bribe to housing association tenants who buy, and the 20% taxpayer-funded discount on starter homes which wealthy first-time buyers will be able to pocket when they sell on at full market price just five years’ later (that’s a cool £90,000 on one of those London £450,000 oh so affordable homes).

As with the bankers, it’s socialism for the rich, austerity for the rest.

There is real fear growing amongst tenants as more and more learn about the Bill. Where will we live?

Will that fear turn into anger? Can we Kill the Housing Bill? Will ‘Pay to Stay’ become ‘Won’t Pay, Will Stay’?

Labour’s wringing hands approach to this Bill needs to toughen up. Years of demonising council tenants as benefit scroungers (including by some of Labour’s former frontbenchers) need to be challenged – the case for council housing has to be made afresh, which means confronting the fetish of home ownership and the widespread view that only the most ‘needy’ should be housed by the state. We want to be able to stay in our homes, not have them demolished without replacement. We want genuinely diverse, stable communities, we want to replace undemocratic, unresponsive housing managements with tenant-led bodies. We want quality homes built to high standards. We want to be able to live in our capital city.

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2 March 2016 first published on https://joantwelveswordpress.wordpress.com/

(a shorter version of this appears in Labour Briefing, March 2016)