How 'Facebook welfare' could reshape the benefits system

Putting social relationships, rather than the impersonal state, at the heart of the welfare system offers a route out of the negative debate about ‘scroungers’.

Generous benefits stop people working. That view, crudely put, is at the centre of the political debate about contributory welfare and benefit ‘scroungers’. It also explains why financial support for unemployed people in the UK is among the most meagre in the developed world. Stingy benefits give people little choice other than to get back to work as quickly as possible: nine in ten unemployed people are back in work within a year.

But for many workers, meagre benefits and tough sanctions create problems. A big drop in living standards during unemployment affords skilled workers no time to find jobs that put their skills to productive use – something that would benefit them, their employer and the taxpayer. It makes little economic sense to push our computer programmers into the nearest retail job just to save the state £71.70 per week in Jobseeker’s Allowance. The trouble is that while higher benefit levels would alleviate this problem, they would compromise work incentives.

There is a way to get the best of both worlds. By 2018, tens of millions of employees will be saving in a private pension thanks to auto-enrolment. That offers an opportunity to build an integrated system of pensions and unemployment savings – one that doesn’t risk diminishing people’s already low rainy-day savings in favour of retirement saving. Let’s call it a lifecycle account.

On hitting unemployment, benefits would automatically be topped-up to 70 per cent of a person’s prior earnings for up to six months, funded from their personal lifecycle account. They would get time to look for the right job, and in spending their own retirement money, jobseekers would have strong incentives to strike the right balance between taking a job today versus a better one tomorrow.

Can this approach tackle the sense that people who’ve not worked enough get “something for nothing” from welfare? Yes, but it will mean putting social relationships – rather than the impersonal state - at the heart of the benefits system.

Account holders would have to nominate three guarantors from their friends or family. They could go into the red while unemployed, giving them a better level of financial support. But their guarantors would be liable to repay a proportion of the money borrowed if their friend failed to find work and repay the cash.

People would be better supported in early unemployment, but in return their closest friends and family would have a direct interest in their work search activities. Harnessing the power of social networks, you might even call it ‘Facebook welfare’.

There is a route out of the negative debate about ‘scroungers’ but it will take a radical rethink of contributory welfare, putting compassionate obligation at the heart of the 21st century welfare state.  

People enter the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Mulheirn is the director of the Social Market Foundation.

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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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