Labour outlines plan to tie benefits to contribution

Liam Byrne and Harriet Harman criticise "divide and rule" approach to welfare.

Writing in the Observer this weekend, Liam Byrne criticised the government's "divide and rule" approach to welfare, saying that both Osborne and Cameron had used the Philpott case to pit the rest of the public against benefits claimants. He said:

To distract the public from their failure to get the economy growing and control the rising bill for unemployment, they point the finger at families struggling to get by in an economy where opportunity has grown very, very thin.

He outlined a three-part plan for the welfare system, which intends to bring it back to the "old principle of contribution":

First, people must be better off in work than living on benefits. We would make work pay by reintroducing a 10p tax rate and supporting employers who pay the living wage. Second, we would match rights with responsibilities. Labour would ensure that no adult will be able to be live on the dole for over two years and no young person for over a year. They will be offered a real job with real training, real prospects and real responsibility. This would be paid for by taxing bankers' bonuses and restricting pension tax relief for the wealthiest. People would have to take this opportunity or lose benefits.

Third, we must do more to strengthen the old principle of contribution: there are lots of people right now who feel they pay an awful lot more in than they ever get back. That should change. We should start by letting councils give priority in social housing allocations to those who work and contribute to their community.

On the Today programme this morning, Harriet Harman expressed her support for the plans, saying:

He [Byrne] is talking about three principles which we’re working on up to the general election. One is that work should pay, secondly, there should be an obligation to take work, and thirdly that there should be support through a contributory principle for people putting into the system as well as taking out.

She also echoed Byrne's criticism of the government's "divisive" strategy:

Instead of just being divisive about it, which is what the government’s doing, they should actually be supporting the economy into growth. And also having a proper work programme, with a jobs guarantee, which is what we have been suggesting.

The "old principle of contribution" comes from the Beveridge Report, one of the documents on which the welfare state was founded after the Second World War.  It stresses that social security "must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual", through contributions from those who recieve benefits. The state "should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family".

The report also famously identified "Five Giant Evils" in society: Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Disease. It remains to be seen whether Labour will identify these as well.

Harriet Harman. Photograph: Getty Images
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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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