Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

How the Conservatives ruined social housing

Stuart Hodkinson writes that despite Tory claims to protect social housing before the election, councils have been allowed to neglect their duty to house those in greatest need

October 4, 2012
6 min read

Photo: lydia_shiningbrightly/Flickr

To all those shocked by revelations that quotas are being used to limit certain types of tenants from accessing new social housing in London’s Kings Cross Central development, I’ve got some bad news for you – this is what the future of social housing looks like in the Big Society.

Since coming to power in May 2010, the Coalition has gone to war on social housing and social tenants, especially in England and Wales, where the Localism Act 2011 mainly applies. Localism was sold to us by the Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, as a new contract between people and the state to enable “a huge shift in power – from central Whitehall, to local public servants, and from bureaucrats to communities and individuals”

Sounds great, but as the Kings Cross scandal reveals, Localism in practice means something more sinister – the freedom for councils to abandon their social duty to house those in greatest need on the diktats of private developers who, like the Chief Whip, don’t want too many ‘plebs’ mixing with the new urban gentry.

The Localism Act is a charter for transforming social housing from the most secure and affordable form of shelter to a highly conditionalised and temporary tenure whose inhabitants need to express daily gratitude for the taxpayer’s generous hand. Social landlords can now restrict access to housing waiting lists on grounds of “need”, give priority on moral grounds to particular groups of “deserving”citizens, like service personnel and their families, on grounds of their sacrifice to the nation, and draw on greater powers to evict their anti-social tenants including convictions for the sort of criminality seen in the recent rioting.

Most significant of all is how the massive cuts in subsidies for new social house building – which has decimated supply when 1.8m households are languishing on council waiting lists, nearly 70% more than a decade ago – have been used to attack security of tenure and controls on rents in England and Wales. To get a grant, social landlords are being forced to build a more expensive, less secure form of housing called “Affordable Rent” with rents reaching 80% of local market levels and ‘flexible’ tenancies only legally guaranteed for two years instead of for life as before. The abolition of statutory lifetime tenancies has since been extended to all new social tenants from April 2012.

Less well known is that local councils and housing associations can also convert a proportion of their existing stock to Affordable Rent when they re-let homes, meaning that secure, low-rent social homes will be gradually replaced by far more expensive, insecure properties with dire implications for low-income tenants in London particularly.

Orwellian

If this sounds bad, wait until the ‘bedroom tax’ bites: from April 2013, welfare reform measures that have already cut housing benefit in the private rental sector will see “under-occupying” social tenants of working age across the UK lose 14% of their housing benefit for having one surplus bedroom and 25% for two or more. The government’s own figures – which almost always under-state the real impact – suggest that 660,000 households will lose on average £14 a week with 120,000 households losing more than £20 per week. Ministers, well-versed in Orwellian double-speak, say it’s all about fairness – to the taxpayers’ subsidising the ‘spare rooms’ and to those forced to live in overcrowded conditions or on waiting lists by the under-occupiers. But this is just nonsense. For families affected, what the state defines as a spare room will typically be a child’s bedroom; for many single tenants, this will have either been their home for decades or the only available home they were offered at the time due to the chronic shortages of social housing that resulted from earlier waves of privatisation and cuts.

Tenants will be forced to choose between greater poverty or moving home – but where will they go? Perhaps in the Coalition’s fantasy world, under-occupiers will magically swap with over-occupiers but in the real world this can’t happen for two simple reasons.

First, there is a general shortage of single occupancy social housing so people can’t downsize; and secondly, most of the over-crowding is in the South and most of the under-occupancy is in the North.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ own impact assessment spells out the consequences: “individuals may have to look further a field for appropriately sized accommodation or move to the private rented sector, otherwise they shall need to meet the shortfall through other means such as employment, using savings or by taking in a lodger or sub-tenant”.

Tears

When I spoke recently to a tenant in Leeds already suffering from depression and unable to work and now faced with this appalling choice, she broke down in tears and said she was thinking about killing herself , such was her anguish at the thought of being forced to either share her home with a total stranger or be moved out of her home and away from her friends and survival networks.

Deliberately misrepresenting social housing as the only subsidised tenure underpins the idea that under-occupancy is a social housing problem when official statistics show the phenomenon is far more acute in both the private rental and owner occupier sectors. It also underpins the Coalition’s tactic of associating social tenants as scroungers and social housing tenure as a cause of social disadvantage, when a key aim of Thatcherism was to ensure only households with the most acute social disadvantage could acquire a social housing tenancy.

Despite the obvious under-supply of social housing across the country, and most acutely in London, the Coalition wants us to believe that the real problem for this shortage lies within the social rented sector itself. How different it all looks now from David Cameron’s promise, just a week before the May 2010 General Election, that a Conservative Prime Minister would “support social housing… protect it, and…respect social tenants’ rights”. Not to mention his manifesto vow not to “allow the poorest people in Britain to pay an unfair price for the mistakes of some of the richest”

The post-election truth is that this was all pre-election subterfuge – a carefully planned PR operation by the Conservatives who dominate this Coalition to hide their real intentions of aggressively continuing and deepening the long-term assault on social housing and the welfare state that in many ways defined the Thatcherite project of neoliberalism.  Privatising public housing and eroding the hard-won rights of tenants has been central to this neo-liberal project precisely because of what social housing has historically represented – the most secure and affordable form of shelter that simultaneously curtails profit-making opportunities while rendering people less prone to flexible exploitation as workers. And this is exactly why the government of millionaires wants to destroy what’s left of it.

This article was originally published here in The Independent online, Monday 1 October

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament


74