The rise in housing benefit is driven by a rise in need. No more, no less

It's not greed, it's not fraud, it's just more people needing help to live their lives, writes Declan Gaffney.

It’s safe to say that housing benefit has few defenders on any side of the political debate.

All parties agree that spending is out of control and needs to be reined in. The right has ruthlessly promoted the claim that housing subsidises the underserving poor to live in accommodation ordinary workers couldn’t afford. The left responds by saying that it is landlords rather than tenants who are milking the system. Thus Owen Jones writes:

Greedy landlords are fully aware that most cannot afford to pay their extortionate rents. But they also know that the taxpayer will step in and subsidise them with housing benefits… Instead of wasting billions on housing benefit, we could spend it on building housing, creating jobs and stimulating the economy.

What the left and right criticisms have in common is more important than what distinguishes them. Housing benefit exemplifies the gruesome two-step of current welfare debate.

  • Step one: claim that expenditure is at unprecedented and unsustainable levels.
  • Step two: blame this on some unpopular group milking the system—greedy landlords or irresponsible tenants—thus suggesting that expenditure can be cut or redirected to other purposes without pain.

Step two is wishful thinking, as I’ll argue below. Step one is easily dealt with. Look at this chart:


The green curve shows expenditure on housing benefit as a share of GDP, indexed to 1978/9, from that year to 2011/12. (It’s the share of GDP that counts when the sustainability of expenditure is at issue.) Spending now, four years after the onset of recession, is at almost exactly the same level as it was in 1995/6 four years after the last recession. In the intervening period it first fell dramatically as the impact of the early 90’s recession receded, then rose sharply when the global financial system collapsed in 2008/9. There has been no long-term upward trend since the early 1990's, so the rhetoric of unsustainability is completely misplaced.

The red curve on the chart, which takes out the effect on expenditure of changes in the number of claimants, shows that the recent rise in expenditure is overwhelmingly driven by the caseload (the dotted blue curve). It also allows us to see the impact of the switch from supply-side to demand-side funding during the late 1980s — that is, the switch from directly subsidising social rents and building homes to giving tenants the money to pay higher rents.

This doesn’t represent a change in overall expenditure but a redirection of subsidy to a different channel.1 The impacts of that switch, particularly on work incentives and poverty traps for lower income groups, have been hotly debated, but the point here is that this step change in housing benefit spending doesn’t represent an additional cost to taxpayers (except in the form of any negative impacts on employment). So even in this long-term perspective the notion that housing benefit represents an increasing burden on the Exchequer is wrong.

What about the other item on the charge sheet—that housing benefit expenditure is wasteful because either landlords or tenants are milking the system on a grand scale? Both these claims, if we are to make sense of them, involve similar economic assumptions.

To see this, consider how landlords might be able to raise rents above market level to capture the subsidy—bearing in mind that if rents aren’t above market level, there is no subsidy (left critics have been surprisingly uninterested in demonstrating this). The private rented market is dominated by small-scale, uncoordinated cottage industry operations, so we can rule out the notion that landlords are using market power to drive up rents. (An exception, but a small element in total spending, may be the market in temporary accommodation for people meeting local authority homelessness criteria).

The other possibility would be if tenants were to some extent indifferent to rent levels. That could allow landlords to use price discrimination (charging more to housing benefit claimants) to extract above-market rents from taxpayers. Alternatively, even if landlords didn’t use price discrimination, tenants might choose more desirable (expensive) properties if they weren’t worried about the rent—the government’s main argument for cutting entitlements. Thus the greedy landlord and irresponsible tenant stories turn on the same explanatory mechanism of tenants failing to respond to prices: they differ only in who is said to be extracting the unfair advantage.

Which raises the question: why would tenants be indifferent to rents? The higher the rent level, the more earned income will be subject to punitive marginal tax rates as housing benefit is withdrawn. You would have to suffer from extreme myopia or have minimal expectations of your future earning capacity not to take this into account in choosing accommodation. Add to this that about half of private rented sector claimants were living in their current accommodation before they made their claim, so they would have been making the same tradeoffs as anybody else when they chose where to live.2

Fortunately, all this can tested empirically.

London has the largest private rented sector in the country, a highly mobile population, substantial variations in rents between areas and (although Londoners hate to admit it) an excellent public transport system.

If housing benefit tenants care about rent levels, we would expect them to be in lower rent areas, subject of course to the availability of accommodation. If they didn’t care, we would expect them to be distributed across areas in accordance with the rental stock.

When a model in which the number of private sector claimants in each borough in 2010-11 is measured against (a) the size of the local private rented sector and (b) the lower 25 per cent of local rents, we find the latter "explains" 66 per cent of the variation in caseload between areas. Overall, a 1 per cent increase in rents implies a 1.7 per cent decrease in the number of claimants.3

Given this strong negative relationship between rent levels and private sector HB claims, the notion that landlords are capturing a large part of the subsidy by charging above market rents looks implausible.

This is even more the case when we look at what’s happened in London since the cuts to housing benefit in April 2011. Using the same model with post-reform data, there is no statistically significant change in the relationship between rents and caseload: even quite dramatic cuts to entitlements don’t seem to have made that much difference to the already very strong propensity for higher rents to drive down the number of claimants.

(This isn’t to say there has been no effect from the changes, but that if there has been, it’s small by comparison with what was already happening before they took place.)

At the same time, between 2011 and 2012, rents rose by 8 per cent in London, and they rose most for the type of larger property where the cuts had the most impact on tenants’ ability to pay—rents for three- and four-bed flats have risen by more than 10 per cent. So much for the government’s claims that rents are falling in response to the cuts

Given how much we spend on housing benefit in the private rented sector it would be surprising if there were no landlords taking advantage. But the hard lesson is that this probably has little impact on overall spending levels. Claims from the left that billions are being wasted "subsidising" private landlords are about as convincing as claims from the right that billions are being wasted subsidising irresponsible tenants to live in mansions.

There’s a longstanding debate about the merits of funding housing through demand rather than supply-side subsidy. (For a fair statement of the argument, see Shelter’s report). But suggesting that there’s a free pot of money available for housing investment in the form of subsidy captured by greedy landlords adds nothing to that debate.

If we want more housing investment, we’re going to have to pay for it some other way: perhaps by borrowing as Jonathan Portes has suggested. Taking that route would also have positive impacts on employment, thus reducing expenditure on housing benefit without hitting the incomes of struggling workers. But the welfare reform two-step is a distraction from the real issues, whether you lead with the right or the left.

1 See page 55 here.

2 See section 6.2 here.

3 Geek note: all variables in logarithms, all p-values <.01. The results are not driven by multi-collinearity between the independent variables.

A housing estate in Lambeth. Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

Photo: Getty
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.