Tag Archives: Cameron

Housing policy or moral crusade?

Photo by Gabi Kent

Photo: Gabi Kent

David Cameron wants to replace “the country’s most run down housing estates,” with “attractive and safe homes.” It’s part of a package aimed at ending poverty, as the government puts it,  and “improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged.”

Well, that’s one way of addressing the housing crisis – with Victorian-style social reform. We’ll make old estates nicer and bingo! your life will be transformed.

Except – as anyone on a council house waiting list, or struggling to get together a huge deposit for a privately rented flat, or a monumental one for a mortgage will tell you – the housing crisis isn’t solved just by knocking houses down and starting again.

And regeneration isn’t as easy as Mr Cameron describes with characteristic trust-me breeziness in an article in the Sunday Times.

Many post-war council estates were badly planned. Others have fallen into disrepair because of wilful neglect or lack of funds. The Prime Minister’s right about that.

But one man’s sink estate is another man, or woman or family’s home. And experience tells us many residents, including owners, will be kicked out of those homes when the builders move in.

So before we rush headlong into Mr Cameron’s self-declared “mission” for a “social turnaround,” on our big housing estates, here are three essential questions that need to be asked.

1. What happens to leaseholders? Social tenants have a right to become owners under right to buy. But councils can force those owners to sell when they want to demolish an estate.

Photo Gabi Kent

Photo: Gabi Kent

They use Compulsory Purchase Orders to do it and offer shared equity or shared ownership in a new home in exchange.

Which sort of works as long as the owner is offered a reasonable price under the CPO or is willing to take on a new mortgage to finance their share of a much more expensive home.

Schemes vary but all too often, the CPO is way below market price. The leaseholder can’t afford an equivalent property on the regenerated estate and ends up having to move, sometimes many miles away.

2. Guarantees for tenants. Mr Cameron says guarantees will be binding. But for which tenants? Will the promise of like-for-like homes cover everyone? Experience says not.

2015-06-29 19.33.50Take the notorious re-development of Barnet’s West Hendon Estate where only those with secure (life-long) council tenancies are being re-housed. Council tenants on fixed term (temporary) contracts have been booted out – even if they lived on the estate for years.

3. Say you do get a new home, will you be paying Social or Affordable rent? Under this government, the terms have become synonymous. But they are very different things.

Social rents set by councils and housing associations are based on local property values and average manual job wages. “Affordable” means paying 80 per cent of whatever the average market rent is. The difference between the two, in weekly rent, can amount to hundreds of pounds.
We know all this because in London alone, 50 estates have undergone regeneration since 2005. Eight thousand homes for social rent have vanished in the process and some bitter lessons have been learned. They’re catalogued in a detailed London Assembly report.

I urge Lord Heseltine, Chair of the Prime Minister’s new Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel to read the report carefully and learn from it.

Unless of course providing genuinely affordable housing is not what this big announcement is really all about.

If it were, the government wouldn’t be steamrolling ahead with a Housing Bill that extends right to buy to Housing Associations, forces councils to sell their most valuable assets and ends life-time tenancies for new social housing renters.

Nor would it have starved councils of funds needed to improve their ageing housing stock.

None of this government’s housing plans to date have done anything to help the “hard working families” Mr Cameron is so fond of invoking. They are the people most affected by the chronic shortage of housing and astronomical rents. They don’t get a mention in Mr Cameron’s description of gang-ridden “ghettos” and “cut-off, self-governing,” estates.

That’s because what the Prime Minister’s proposing isn’t a coherent social policy aimed at fixing a deep-seated and complex housing crisis.

No. It’s a moral crusade against social housing.

 

Name Calling

David Cameron’s years in public relations weren’t wasted.

Whatever one thinks of his government’s policies, its mastery of linguistic tactics has been spot on.

Repetition has planted key words and slogans firmly in the public discourse.  A party not best known for its unity, not even capable of governing alone, has, with one voice, cleverly defined the political debate – and the Opposition.

First came “the mess we inherited,” the unrelenting mantra that cast Labour as the party of profligacy.  Out went any notion that millionaire bankers had brought the global financial system to its knees. Recession was caused by debt; debt was caused by the previous government’s giddy spending frenzy. What could the Conservatives do but “clear up Labour’s mess”?

Embarrassed by the chaos of the Brown years, stunned by the sudden ballooning of the debt after the 2008 crash, Labour was tongue-tied. So the public has accepted that the money was indeed wasted on fripperies as the Tories relentlessly implied.

Where was the counter-argument about improved public services? Yes, spending did increase under Labour and it’s true some of the money could have been better spent. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, we didn’t always get bang for our buck.

But we did get a National Health Service transformed from the old Tory days of 18-month waiting lists for appointments in dingy, crumbling hospitals. Schools were rebuilt, their pathetic budgets increased. Teachers and nurses were recruited and, at last, properly paid.

Not that Ed Miliband and his friends had the wit or courage to say so. Nor have they countered the Conservatives’ re-labelling of one of the most important issues of our time. Income support, housing benefit, disability allowances – whatever the state benefit, whatever the level of need, it’s lumped together as “Welfare” these days.

And if you had any doubt about the pejorative nature of that term, imported from the US (land of the “welfare queens”, “welfare moms”, even “welfies”) just listen to Iain Duncan Smith. When the Work and Pensions Secretary scoffed at “Labour, the Welfare Party” on Radio 4’s Today Programme, he didn’t mean it as a compliment. (True to the Tory-PR style book, he’s used the phrase, or some variation of it repeatedly in recent weeks).

The party of welfare, of the unions, and of reckless spending on frivolous things. The words have been spat across the House of Commons or onto the airwaves so effectively that a paralysed Labour Party seems almost to have accepted the Tory labels. So have the media.

And now there’s another bit of slick PR sloganizing we’re likely to hear repeated endlessly in the run up to the next election. “From rescue to recovery” is how the Chancellor, George Osborne described the economy in his recent Spending Review. It’s the Treasury phrase du jour. Out it came again last week when the IMF said the UK could see economic growth this year of a pathetic 0.9 per cent.

Never mind that the “rescue” has seen falling wages and a growth in poorly paid, part-time jobs. Never mind the Local Government Association’s dire warning that budget cuts mean some basic public services could disappear altogether. Let’s not worry either about the doubling in the numbers of people turning to food banks in the past three months.

Of course, all governments try to tell the story their way. Labour were once Westminster’s masters of spin. Not any more. David Cameron is a much more accomplished communicator than people tend to think of a man who often has trouble getting his own party to listen.

His skill with language has changed the tone of debate and as a result, the substance.  Labour meanwhile, are all too often lost for words.

 

The not-so-Big Society

Who’s in charge of Britain these days? I don’t mean who’s in power, or who has the most MPs. I mean who is looking at the country’s complex economic and social problems and saying, “Here’s how we’re going to fix this.”

A few years ago, under Labour, the answer would have been, “The State, that’s who”.  And had a Labour government – once flush with cash – concentrated on the things the state does well, like providing good schools, health care and affordable homes, “government” might not have become a dirty word. But they couldn’t stop themselves. From ID cards to the DNA data base and an obsession with centrally mandated targets and red-tape, New Labour blew it, creating first the nanny, then the bully state and earning central control a bad name along the way.     

What then to replace it with?  The Tories agonised throughout their wilderness years, trying on new mantras like Ascot hats. Then in came Compassionate Conservatism . As defined by leading Tory thinker, now MP Jesse Norman, it’s a conservatism which “acknowledges the power of the state but insists on its limitations”. The Big Society was David Cameron’s riff on the same theme, a concept so vague it’s been relaunched at least 3 times.

In reality what we’re getting is an increasingly fragmented state. Not a Big Society so much as an atomised one. It’s not that power and responsibility have been de-centralised so much as they’ve been allowed to drift quietly away. Overall public spending cuts are decided in Whitehall but the dirty work, where to cut and how deep, is passed on to others. Take local authorities: bribed by the government to freeze council taxes, most have run out of cash. Now they’re abandoning some services completely, while scaling others back and handing them over to the charitable sector to do on the cheap.  

Camden for example has the full range of social and economic problems you’d expect in an inner London borough. But due to the budget crisis, it’s scrapping universal access to breakfast and after-school clubs, and to holiday play schemes. Some will close completely. Others will be run by “community providers” (charities) who’ll offer “a service for those children who most need help” (those already being helped by social services) and a few subsidised places for children of the working poor. It won’t be many,  for it can’t be – the charities are doing this for a measly one third of what the council used to spend on kids. What’s the result likely to be? According to a study Camden commissioned last year from the Daycare Trust, 95% of parents who use the play service are working or studying.  Paying more for childcare or not being able to access it, “is likely to push some lower income families out of the labour market and into poverty.” 

Of course, everyone has their axe-swinging budget tale of woe. But how does cutting any service for children sit with this government’s avowed aims of improving social mobility and educational achievement? Children from poor backgrounds do significantly worse in school than their peers from better off homes.   Children who do badly at school don’t get jobs – and so on. Surely it would be impossible to even contemplate cuts that reduce a child’s chances of future success if somebody were actually in charge?

And what about the charities the Tories want to hand responsibility to?  Which ones, and coordinated by who? There are literally thousands of them (a quick Google of those for disabled children alone brings up 235). To whom should they offer their services? To local authorities certainly, but their powers are diminishing – especially when it comes to schools. First academies, now free schools have spun off into isolated little worlds.  Michael Gove doesn’t really want local authorities to have any substantial role. All schools now have more control over their own budgets, but at the same time they have to buy in many more of the services once provided by the councils – and they have to do it on their own.  

And so it goes on. Take health, where thanks to recent reforms, different private companies will provide services in different counties. First up, NHS children’s services in Devon. Virgin and Serco are bidding for that contract. Look out for a hospital near you being handed over to companies that transport prisoners and run trains. As for who’s in charge –the architect of the reforms, Andrew Lansley, tried his best to make sure it wouldn’t be him. The original health reform bill removed the duty of the Secretary of State to provide health services at all, allowing the government to sidestep blame for any failings in the NHS. After an outcry (and pressure from the Lib Dems) that was scrapped, but the thinking behind it illustrates this new Tory laissez-faire gone wild. 

Thus the Big Society takes shape. Fragmented, chaotic, everyone scrabbling for their place while the state sits back, shunning responsibility and dodging the blame. This is not an argument in favour of Labour’s control freakery or against private and 3rd sector involvement in public services.  But someone needs to join the dots and come up with a plan that isn’t just about tackling the debt and which builds rather than destroys. That’s what government is for.

Come to think of it, that suggests an anti-Tory slogan for Labour at the next election: “Why vote for a government that doesn’t believe in government at all?”