Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Will the Housing Benefit Cap Become the New Poll Tax?

A man finding stuff to eat in a bin in London.
I am very concerned about the proposal to limit the amount that housing benefit recipients in Britain will be able to claim under the changes outlined in the government's recent Comprehensive Spending Review.

The proposal would limit the amount that could be paid to an individual to one third of the average rental income of the area where the claimant lives. At present, the claim is capped at half of the local average.

The government's assertion is that it is "not fair" for a jobless person to be able to live in a property (for instance in central London) that a working person would not be able to afford. Which, taken in isolation as a philosophical statement, is possibly worth debating. But, put in context of the real world and the actual economy, translates to an outcome that seems as cruel as it is unfair.

Under the proposed change, a family (for instance) who were claiming housing benefit in an expensive area would be unable to continue to receive the payment if it ran above the new capped level, meaning that they would probably have to move out and find cheaper accommodation.

The problem with that is that, in most cities, such a move would require a significant relocation to a poor estate on the edge of the city, or out of the city altogether.

This would result in a number of undesirable outcomes:

  • the claimant would be further removed from the geography of the job market which they need to access in order to move out of benefit and into work (which is a key idea in the government's welfare reform plans)
  • the claimant (and family) would be removed from their existing relational networks and social support systems - important aspects of the Big Society - which would make it more difficult for them to escape poverty and its attendant evils
  • children of such claimants would be removed from existing peers, school and other support systems, which are particularly important when a family are on a low income, and which take time to reproduce elsewhere
  • cities would become increasingly segregated economically. Do we really want to see a Paris-style urban settlement, with the poor pushed out to the physical periphery of the city, leaving the heart exclusively for the rich? British cities are already economically segregated to a significant degree and this proposal will make it much worse, with the social upheaval that such a move would bring in its wake.
  • the recipient neighborhoods, many already dealing with high levels of crime, drug misuse and social breakdown, would receive an influx of non-working households who are geographically uprooted, possibly resentful and less able to access employment than they may have been before their move. This is hardly a recipe for building safe and cohesive local communities.
A growing number of informed people seem to be expressing similar concerns , and there is some evidence today that the message might be staring to get through to Iain Duncan Smith at the Department of Work and pensions, who are behind this proposal.

Let's hope that IDS has the sense to scrap this unjust measure. Failure to do so could be a catalyst for the kinds of protest and disorder that accompanied the last great nationally unpopular policy from a Conservative government. The Poll Tax ultimately failed because it was widely perceived as unjust. It is to be hoped that this housing benefit measure receives the same treatment, before it is implemented and its ill effects felt across our cities.

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