The welfare system is already stacked against the young

The decision to remove housing benefit from the under-25s is just another item on the list of ways our welfare system is penalising the young.

David Cameron wants to take housing benefit away from under-25s, arguing the move would save £2bn a year. Housing benefit is mainly claimed by those in work, with 93 per cent of new claimants and 80 per cent of total recipients in a job, so the plan would largely be a redistribution from young low-wage workers to elsewhere.

Thirteen major charities have attacked the proposal, arguing it would take a vital safety net away from young people. What is rarely mentioned is that the welfare state is already stacked against young people in other areas, with the housing benefit plan simply another item on a list.

Working tax credit

Low wage workers over the age of 25 can get their wages topped up by working tax credit by as much as £1,450 a year. This wage subsidy makes working more attractive, and allows businesses to pay a lower rate; these combined means it probably has a positive effect on employment. But despite much political disquiet about record-high youth unemployment, which is bucking the slight downward general unemployment trend, young workers are exempt from this subsidy, leaving many jobs paying very little.

National Minimum Wage

Though now largely forgotten, when the National Minimum Wage was introduced some argued it might have an impact on jobs. While successive governments have been happy to exclude young workers from Working Tax Credit despite the possible resulting unemployment, the opposite is true with the NMW. So, a 20 year old worker only has a wage floor of £4.98, compared to £6.19 for a 21 year old, while those who leave school at 16 and go into work can expect to be paid as little as £3.68 – nearly 60 per cent less than the adult rate. 

Work Programme

When questioned on their strategy to tackle youth unemployment, the Government points to its Work Programme, which Jobcentres usher young people onto three months before their older peers. What is not usually brought up is that the Work Programme is structured in a way that values youth jobs less than jobs for older people, with fewer incentives for providers to find under-25s work. The total payment made to providers who find work for someone over-25 is £4,400, while each young person found a job only nets them £3,800, a full £600 less per case: providers have a built-in financial incentive to focus on helping older claimants, which could help explain why young people are disproportionately unemployed.

Jobseekers’ Allowance

If someone under 25 finds themselves out of work, as nearly a million across the country do today, they don’t get the £71-a-week JSA payment afforded to those over 25 – instead they get £56.25, a full 20 per cent less. Since the amount of money paid from JSA doesn’t cover anything more than subsistence levels, and prices in shops are the same for everyone regardless of age, this almost certainly affects the standard of living of the young unemployed who have to fend for themselves.

Defenders of the set-up might argue that young people are less likely to have a family or other commitments and so have lower costs. But the welfare system already takes these things into account through situational payments like child benefit. Moreover, it would be difficult to imagine such restrictions imposed solely on the basis of age at the top end. It’s not clear that further sanctions on the young is consistent with the Government’s claim to want to share the pain of austerity equally, when they already get significantly less out of the system.

Under-25s on Jobseekers' Allowance receive a full 20 per cent less. Photograph: Getty Images

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

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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 Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced 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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