Housing benefits and the Olympics

How housing benefit caps exacerbate the effects of the Olympics.

When the Government announced its cap on housing benefits, it dismissed critics who said that this would lead to increased social segregation and a displacement of the poor from inner city housing. Nothing of the sort would happen, but instead, the size of the welfare bill would go down and there would be lower rents for poor people renting from a private landlord. In reality, the critics were right: the poor are driven out of their communities, and rents continue to rise as fewer and fewer people can afford to buy. Nowhere can this be better observed than in the Olympic boroughs, where high-speed gentrification meets the benefit cap.

Hardly anyone expected that the Olympic Games would leave the population of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets unchanged. The billions of pounds that poured into three of the most deprived boroughs in England led to upgraded infrastructure and housing stock and brought new shopping and leisure facilities. Many people on higher incomes will consider moving there where few would have done so before. Consequently, housing values and rents are on the up. Post-Olympics, the poor would have always found it hard to find affordable accommodation, and people on housing benefits would have struggled to find a private landlord willing to rent to them rather than a more affluent tenant.

But the housing benefit cap is massively exacerbating this development. Housing benefit is paid in the form of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) to people on low incomes who rent from a private landlord (as opposed to a social landlord, such as a housing association).  Prior to the reform, the maximum amount was pegged at the median level of a given rental market area, meaning that private landlords would get a similar rent than if they let out their property to a more affluent tenant. The newly introduced cap limits the LHA to the 30th percentile, and also specifies an absolute cap, for example £250 per week for a one bedroom property. This may appear high – but in London, it is not an unusual price.

Since the introduction of the cap, landlords in East London quickly realised that they can charge the same or much higher rents in the open market rather than renting to LHA recipients. It is very tempting even for the most socially inclined of private landlords to do so, given that the system is fraught with complications: payments are made in arrears, and often arrive late. LHA recipients whose income level crosses and recrosses the eligibility threshold have their benefit payments stopped and restarted, making the system even more unreliable. The general demonisation of LHA recipients (or benefit recipients in general) does not help. The result: a shortage of housing for the poor. As a Guardian investigation has shown, there are hundreds of properties within the limits of the housing cap in Newham, but many of these are not available to people on LHA. Queue the exodus of LHA recipients. Newham Council has already asked a housing association in Stoke if they could take on 500 families for which the council has been unable to find properties. The legacy of the Games will be a homogenous island of wealth interspersed with remnants of social housing rather than the mix of rich and poor that is still the norm in most parts of London.

The developments here are a sign of the shape of things to come across the country – at different times, at different speeds, but it will happen elsewhere, as the rental market is rapidly overheating: people cannot afford to buy anymore and renting ceases to be the preserve of the poor. Landlords can chose who to let to, and unsurprisingly will chose richer tenants. It was always a complete folly to introduce price controls on a small segment of an overheating market – it simply means that this market segment will not be served. What is happening in the Olympic boroughs should act as a warning to the rest of the country: if we don't want ghettos of rich and poor, the cap has to be repealed. If we don't want to spend increasing amounts of money on housing the poor, we have to reform the whole of the housing market, not just that part that is meant to serve the vulnerable (and that serves them badly already). At the moment, it is barely working for most, and it isn't working for the poor at all.

Photograph: Getty Images

Veronika Thiel is a researcher and writer in the field of social economics and health policy. She tweets from @veronikathiel.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.