Full employment and rising wages are the key to welfare reform

Iain Duncan Smith was once right about the need for drastic change - then he got everything else wrong.

When Iain Duncan Smith starting visiting to Easterhouse and steered the new Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) towards a Tory-analysis of poverty, he was hailed by many as a prophet. Finally, wrote breathless commentators, the ‘nasty party’ had found a route-map to Compassionate Converatism. Five years later, IDS is part of a government that is plunging one million children into poverty and is ramming through the House of Lords new laws that will cut help for 3.5 million disabled people. The Saint of Easterhouse has become the punch-bag of the Treasury. The route-map, is turns out, was a chimera.

But IDS is still standing in part because he stands on the foundations of the CSJ’s study. I might disagree about lots of their conclusions but I can respect the fact that they actually bothered to look at the problem. Reform of social security – currently one-third of public spending – is a big question. It demands and deserves deep thinking not a casual look. And that’s why the launch on 14 February of the Commission on the Condition of Britain is so welcome, and why I’ll be following its work so closely. Back in the 1990s, the Commission on Social Justice at the IPPR was critical to Labour’s social security reforms in office. I hope we’ll learn just as much from the IPPR’s second big look two decades later.

The truth is major reform of the welfare state is mission critical to rebuilding Britain after the global financial crash; it’s crucial to creating a country where we end the trauma of the living standards crisis, and it’s crucial to renewing a shared sense that we really are all in this together. This is the frame that Jon Cruddas set out for One Nation Labour in an important speech at the Resolution Foundation this week; ‘earning and belonging’.

When the Beveridge Report was published seventy years ago in the middle of World War Two, it was swept off the shelves by a British public thirsty for a vision of what would come when peace was won. At the heart of Beveridge’s argument was the idea we needed social insurance to help working families deal with the exigencies of life that caused new pressures (like the costs of children) or caused a loss of earnings , like the mass unemployment of the 1930s.

Today, the challenge for social security is not simply to minimise disruption to earnings, it is to help families maximise the potential of earnings. Beveridge’s world-view was set during the Devil’s Decade of the 1930s. Our world-view must be shaped by the gigantic squeeze on earnings that means living standards for ordinary working families might not recover, according to the Resolution Foundation, until the 2020s.

The reality for Britain today is that right now, productivity is going up; corporate profits are going up; companies are piling up cash in their bank accounts at a rapid rate of knots. Yet real wages are falling. In other words, workers are producing more and earning less. If we’re to reverse this giant trend, we are going to need new strategies for full employment – because full employment is the best guarantee of rising wages. We’re going to need new strategies to help working parents – especially mums – juggle childcare and sustain their careers. We need new ways to help the over 50s stay in work. And we need a radically new approach to disability policy so that government actually puts a team behind disabled people helping them get on in life, not a bureaucracy against them locking away help.

The IPPR’s work couldn’t come at a better time. Half way through the Parliament it’s now clear, the Conservatives so-called welfare revolution is collapsing in chaos. It doesn’t help working families get on. Its making poverty worse. The DWP is no longer even able to organise work experience in Poundland, never mind complex change like Universal Credit. We’re determined to offer a bold alternative, that staunches the cost of failures and puts social security once more, back on the side of working people.

The Easterhouse estate, Glasgow. Source: Getty

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, and sits on the International Trade select committee. He is the cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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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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