Cameron is repeating the housing benefit myth

The statistic Cameron ignores: only one in eight claimants is unemployed.

Having long abandoned the pretence that "we're all in this together", David Cameron is preparing yet another raid on the welfare budget. In a speech today, he will announce plans to abolish housing benefit for under-25s and will indicate that the government is considering "time-limiting" Jobseeker's Allowance, reducing the new benefits cap to £22,000 and restricting payments for large families (specifically, limiting child benefit to three children, although this proposal will not be mentioned in the speech).

As previously signalled by George Osborne, the cuts are designed to save the government £10bn but so far Cameron hasn't chosen to focus on the alleged savings. Rather, he has argued that the plans are necessary to reverse a "culture of entitlement". In his pre-speech interview with the Mail on Sunday, Cameron claimed that housing benefit "discourages" young people from working:

A couple will say, 'We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents.'

But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn't available to us?

One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.

With those words, Cameron perpetuated the biggest myth about housing benefit: that it is a benefit for the unemployed. The truth is that just one in eight claimants is out of work (not a statistic that you'll find reported in most papers). The majority of those who claim housing benefit, including the under-25s, do so to compensate for substandard wages and extortionate rents. A recent study by The Building and Social Housing Foundation showed that 93 per cent of new housing benefit claims made between 2010 and 2011 were made by households containing at least one employed adult.

It is meaningless of Cameron to claim that the housing benefit budget is "too large" without considering why. The inflated budget, which will reach £23.2bn this year, is the result of a conscious choice by successive governments to subsidise private landlords rather than invest in affordable social housing. Yet rather than addressing the problem of stagnant wages and excessive rents, Cameron, in a bid to appease his querulous party, has chosen to squeeze the already squeezed. 

That he should do so by abolishing housing benefit for under-25s is particularly egregious. Of the 380,000 young people who claim the benefit, a significant number do so because they have been thrown out by their parents. As Shelter notes, "Last year nearly 10,000 households in priority need were recognised as homeless after they were thrown out by their parents. Many more won’t have shown up in the statistics and will have resorted to sofa surfing, hostels or at worst the streets."

Others may be unable to live at home after their parents divorced or downsized or, as Petra Davies previously noted on the site, may have been rejected due to their sexuality. As she noted, around 25 per cent of the young homeless population in urban areas is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. 

But such objections will do little to deter Cameron's drive to shrink the state. With his latest attack on the working poor, he has finally outed himself as a compassionless Conservative.

David Cameron has vowed to tackle what he calls "a culture of entitlement" in the welfare system. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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