A row of houses in the north of England. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The government's plans are nothing short of an attack on social housing

Social housing used not to be the preserve of the few. That's a ideal worth harking back to, says Tom Copley.

There were some good things in George Osborne's budget. Scrapping non-dom tax status (a Labour manifesto pledge rubbished by the Tories at the time), reducing mortgage interest tax relief for private landlords and increasing tax relief for homeowners who rent out a room. The former two will dampen demand for property and the latter will encourage more efficient use of housing stock.

But let's turn to the bad and the ugly. This budget is the continuation of an all-out assault on social housing by the Conservatives. It began under the Coalition when the affordable housing grant was cut by 60 per cent. Housing Associations were told to introduce the so-called "Affordable Rent" at up to 80 per cent of market rent, and make up the shortfall in funding to build new homes with borrowing.

Then came the last minute Tory election pledge to extend Right to Buy to Housing Association tenants. Even with the £100,000 discount paid for by the government, this will erode Housing Associations' asset bases and thus their ability to borrow the very money they need to make up for the cut in grant from the government. This week's surprise announcement of a government imposed one  per cent annual cut in social rents further erodes their finances and thus their ability to build.

I support cutting rents for social tenants. In fact I, along with nearly every borough in London – red, yellow and blue – vehemently opposed the decision the Chancellor’s previous Government took in 2011 to essentially redefine social housing as anything charging up to 80 per cent of market rent. But the harsh reality is that without any subsequent increase in grant it will mean fewer much needed affordable homes being built - 27,000 fewer according to the National Housing Federation.

George Osborne lamented the 20 per cent rise in social rents since 2010. Yet it was he who agreed a ten year inflation plus one per cent rent increase with Housing Associations in 2013. To renege on that agreement now will plunge the social housing sector into chaos, and may result in a judicial review. Unsurprisingly he had not a word to say about sky high private sector rents.

Turning to councils, they will be forced to sell high value properties to pay for the discounts for Housing Association tenants exercising their new Right to Buy. In practise this means that any new council homes built by inner London boroughs like Islington will have to be immediately sold off as they will all be worth more than the government's regional cap.

Taken in isolation the imposition of one of these policies may be regarded as merely misguided. But taken together is difficult to see this package of measures as anything other than a deliberate attempt to sabotage the delivery of social housing. First they cut government grant and told Housing Associations to make up the difference with more borrowing and higher rents. Now they're undermining the Associations' borrowing ability and forcing them to cut rents.

Meanwhile, all social tenants who earn above £40,000 in London or £30,000 outside will be forced to pay market rent for their homes. This Aspiration Tax will discourage social tenants from earning more for fear of losing their homes. It will encourage others to exercise the Right to Buy, meaning yet more social housing will be lost forever. Work and benefits are not two different lifestyle choices. People move between the two. Social housing is supposed to provide stability for those who can't or don't wish to own a home. Getting a new job or a pay rise shouldn't put the stability of that home at risk.

The Tory justification for charging better-off tenants market rents is to say it's wrong for them to get subsidised rents. This is wilfully misleading. Unlike the Tories' huge Right to Buy discounts, social rent is not subsidised. It covers the maintenance, management and debt repayments of the home. We must be careful not to look at this problem down the wrong end of the telescope. The problem isn't that social rents are too low, but that market rents are too high. The real solution to high market rents is to build more genuinely affordable housing, a goal which this budget makes even harder to achieve.

George Osborne's plan may yet fall apart. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility warned in its budget overview that his meddling with Housing Associations may see the ONS reclassify them from private to public organisations, bringing £60 billion of their debt onto the government's books. But if it goes ahead the legacy will be even fewer new genuinely affordable homes than we're building now.

At the root of this lies a fundamental debate about what social housing is for. The Conservative view is that it is housing for the poor and that anyone with "aspiration" should leave it, whether they wish to or not. Yet before it became so scarce many middle class people lived in social housing. Nye Bevan's dream for council housing was of the "living tapestry of the mixed community." It was a noble dream indeed.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.