Osborne secretly plans £2.5bn cut to sickness benefit

Leaked document shows that the Chancellor wants to slash support for people too ill to work.

Leaked document shows that the Chancellor wants to slash support for people too ill to work.

Leaked documents have shown that George Osborne is secretly planning to cut sickness benefits by £2.5bn.

The plan is detailed in a confidential letter from Osborne to the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, which was seen by the Observer.

Written on 19 June (three days before the Emergency Budget) and also sent to David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the letter says:

Given the pressure on overall public spending in the coming period, we will need to continue developing further options to reform the benefits as part of the spending review process in order to deliver further savings, greater simplicity and stronger work incentives.

Reform to the employment support allowance is a particular priority and I am pleased that you, the prime minister and I have agreed to press ahead with reforms to the ESA as part of the spending review that will deliver net savings of at least £2.5bn by 2014-15.

The employment and support allowance (ESA) is the successor to incapacity benefits, and is paid to those who are unable to work because of disability or illness.

Duncan Smith is currently locked into negotiations with the Treasury over his proposed reform to the welfare system, which will require immediate investment in order to incentivise working in the long-term.

This revelation has done little to ease the tension. The Department for Work and Pensions insisted that nothing has been decided, stressing that "our reforms will ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected." Some within Duncan Smith's camp have even accused the Treasury of leaking the letter to force them into accepting the plan.

The proposed cuts are disturbing, but hardly surprising. Just last week, Osborne launched an astonishing attack on people who have made the "lifestyle choice" to be on benefits, announcing an extra £4bn cuts.

A government spokeswoman dismissed the leak, saying that the £2.5bn figure was "totally out of date", and that negotiations on ESA were ongoing. Possible changes could include means-testing recipients, and limiting the amount of time that people can spend on ESA.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies showed unequivocally last month that the Budget was regressive, and would disproportionately affect the very poorest in society. To this already punitive Budget, with its drastic cuts to housing benefits, add the extra reductions that Osborne announced last week and this latest news. You have a picture of an assault on the welfare state and a worrying propensity to go after the most vulnerable in society.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for 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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