The questions Labour needs to answer about its regional benefit cap

Why support a regional benefit cap but not regional benefit levels? And what level would the cap be set at it in London?

With the introduction of the £26,000 benefit cap in four London boroughs this week (see my blog from Monday for five reasons why the cap is wrong), Labour has been challenged again to say whether it would keep the policy if elected. The party's answer is still that it supports a cap but one that takes into account regional variations in housing costs. 

Ed Balls said on LBC this morning that the party would "definitely keep" the cap, so long as it is "set in the right way". On Question Time last night, Caroline Flint argued:

I also believe in a benefit cap but one that can work and the problem is that because there are different housing costs around the country, the government have introduced this sort of standardised benefit cap that is going to cause problems. We argued that, actually, we should have localised benefit caps that did reflect some of the housing costs

There is logic to Labour's position. House prices in London are 61 per cent higher than the national average and, as a result, nearly half of those households affected by the cap are in the capital. As Liam Byrne argued when the policy was first proposed last year, "While all that £500 a week might get you in central London is a one-bedroom apartment, in Rotherham, Yorkshire it would get you a six-bedroom house. How can a 'one-size-fits-all' cap be fair to working people in both London and Rotherham?"

But the proposal invites the Conservative rejoinder: if you support a regional benefit cap, why not regional benefit levels? When Michael Howard made this point on Question Time, Flint replied: "There is a different issue when it comes to housing, if you look around the country, Michael, you can see that there are disparities in terms of housing costs." In other words, she dodged the question. There is a strong argument against regional benefit levels (and regional public sector pay) - that they would depress local economies at a time when they desperately need stimulus - but it is one that Labour has failed to make so far. 

The other question that the party needs to answer is what level the cap would be set at in London and elsewhere. While a regional approach would mean a cap below £26,000 in some areas, it would almost certainly mean a cap above this level in the capital. The political problem for Labour is that most voters already regard the existing cap as too generous. As the Telegraph's Iain Martin tweeted this morning, "If Labour says £500 per week benefit cap in London is too low, what should it be set at instead? £700? A grand?" A higher benefit cap in the capital would inevitably prompt the accusation that poorer areas are unfairly being asked to subsidise housing costs for Londoners. 

The overwhelming public support for the cap (79 per cent of people, including 71 per cent of Labour voters, back the policy) has convinced Labour that it can't be seen to oppose the policy unconditionally. But without further development, the alternative of a regional cap risks falling apart under Tory scrutiny.  

A general view of the Falinge Estate, which has been surveyed as the most deprived area in England for a fifth year in a row, on January 8, 2013 in Rochdale, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.