Osborne puts housing benefit for under-25s first in line for cuts

The Chancellor says he will prioritise further cuts to the housing benefit budget before making any changes to universal pensioner benefits.

Depending on who you believe, David Cameron is either preparing to withdraw benefits from wealthy pensioners after the next election, or is set to pledge to ring-fence them again. Cameron's refusal to promise to protect universal benefits such as Winter Fuel Payments, free TV licences and free bus passes on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, in contrast with his pledge to maintain the triple lock on the state pension (so that it rises in line with inflation, earnings, or 2.5%, whichever is highest), was widely interpreted as preparing the ground for a U-turn. But a Downing Street source tells today's Daily Mail that the PM is "minded to repeat the pledge" (which has seen pensioner benefits protected throughout this parliament) and that he remains personally committed to preserving the benefits for all pensioners, not just the poorest. 

It was left to George Osborne, who is more open to cuts in this area than Cameron, to try and provide some clarity in his first interview of the year on the Today programme this morning. Osborne refused to rule out the withdrawal of benefits from some pensioners, repeatedly stating that he was "not writing the Conservative manifesto today", but offered an important indication of his priorities. There would certainly be further welfare cuts (Osborne has previously declared that he hopes to cut "billions" more from the budget), but pensioner benefits would not be first in line. The Chancellor suggested that reducing their scope would save only "tens of millions", adding that "it is not where you need to make the substantial savings required". Instead, he singled out housing benefit for the under-25s as the first target for cuts and took aim at those "on incomes of £60-£70,000 living in council homes". 

Osborne is right to point out that means-testing pensioner benefits would not raise the sums that many suggest. Last year the government spent £2.2bn a year on winter fuel payments, £1bn on free bus passes and £600m on free TV licences. Compare that to the £23.8bn annually spent on housing benefit (owing to extortionate rents and substandard wages) and the £27.2bn spent on tax credits (owing to inadequate pay) and it becomes clear where the real savings are to be made. Labour's pledge to withdraw Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5% of pensioners is expected to save just £100m.

But Osborne's preferred approach of salami slicing the welfare budget, rather than addressing its underlying causes, will not raise significant sums either. For all the human misery they have caused, the household benefit cap is forecast to save just £110m a year by the DWP, while the bedroom tax will raise just £490m (and both, as analysts have warned, may end up costing more than they save by increasing homelessness and other social ills). 

Throughout the interview, Osborne repeatedly referred to his "values" and the state's duty to ensure "dignity and security in old age". But in this instance, his motives (as so often) are nakedly political. While spending on the NHS and the state pension is among the most popular (and the over-65s are the most likely age group to vote), few will object to the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s (the least likely age group to vote). With the Tories increasingly focused on chasing the grey vote, the question facing Labour is whether it is prepared to speak up for the young. 

George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. 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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