Cutting benefits for teenage mothers is a policy based on prejudice alone

The measure proposed by the 40 Group of Tory MPs will do little to reduce the welfare bill, while further stigmatising an already marginalised group.

While Iain Duncan Smith tours the studios defending the government's punitive benefit cap, other Conservative MPs have been busy dreaming up new welfare cuts. In a measure seemingly inspired by former social security secretary Peter Lilley, who denounced "young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue", the 40 Group of Tory MPs (so called because they represent the 40 most marginal seats won by the party in 2010) has proposed removing benefits from teenage mothers unless they live "with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation". This measure, it says, will leave teenagers "in no doubt that teenage motherhood will not lead to an automatic right to subsidised housing and other benefits". 

As in the case of Duncan Smith and his "belief" that people are moving into work as a result of the benefit cap, they've no evidence for their claim that teenagers have children in order to claim benefits (as they concede), but they're prepared to allow their prejudices to shape policy all the same.

Before addressing the proposal itself, it's worth noting that the teenage pregnancy rate is currently at its lowest level since records began in 1969 (not a statistic you'll find in the group's literature) and that many young mothers already live with their families or in sheltered housing. But while the number affected would be too small to make any significant dent in the £201bn social security bill, the measure would cause much unnecessary harm. It would further stigmatise an already marginalised group that deserves to be supported, not punished. In addition, as Sue Cohen of the Single Parent Action Network, points out, the coalition has already made large cuts to sheltered housing. Is there to be new investment? If not, she says, the government "is consigning their children to even deeper poverty". 

Finally, forcing young mothers to remain with their parents contradicts measures such as the benefit cap , the "bedroom tax" and non-dependent deductions (which reduces housing benefit for those families with a child aged over 18), which are ostensibly designed to encourage families to downsize.  

At a time when Britain has no shortage of social and economic problems, it's genuinely dismaying to see the new generation of Tory MPs resort to attacking the same old targets.

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The 40 Group of Tory MPs said teenage mothers would have to live "with their parents or in supervised hostel accommodation" to claim benefits. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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