Benefits, Britain

Housing benefits: social cleansing or social engineering?

Council Houses

Council Houses

Social housing costs £15 billion a year. The governments cap on benefits will still provide enough rent to afford suitably sized accommodation. When a lot of this money goes towards socially engineering entire communities, a rethink about social housing is deserved, writes David Vaiani.

Last week the government’s housing benefits cuts were challenged in the High Court. Lawyers representing the Child Poverty Action Group claimed that the new policy of setting a cap on weekly rents would lead to a sharp increase in homelessness. Some rather excitable commentators have even gone so far as to accuse the government of engaging in an act of ‘social cleansing’.

So, what do these caps amount to? Put simply, the cap means that people on benefits will receive a maximum of £250 for a one-bedroom flat, £290 for two bedrooms, £340 for three bedrooms and £400 for four bedrooms. Given that £250 per week can still, despite recent rent increases, secure you a perfectly decent one-bedroom flat in many parts of central London, let alone the rest of the country, talk of ‘social cleansing’ is ludicrous, not to mention deeply offensive.

What critics of the new policy fail to grasp is that nobody has an inalienable right to be housed in the most desirable parts of the country. For my own part, I would quite like to live in Mayfair but I can not afford to, so I have to compromise by living somewhere less expensive. Equally, I have friends with young children who have been forced to move out of the capital altogether because they cannot afford even a modest home with a garden in London.

These are the choices the vast majority of us have to make and, for the most part, we make them without complaining about our lot. Ultimately, if your personal or financial circumstances change, you may also need to reconsider your housing needs and requirements. Given that most people have to come to terms with this fact of life, it surely cannot be right to house over 4 million people in houses which they (and the majority of taxpayers) could not hope to afford on their own steam.

Those who defend the cost of social housing frequently argue that mixed communities are essential to creating greater equality and social cohesion across our society. In common with many other socialist ideas, this theory sounds superficially plausible and indeed desirable, but there is sadly no practical evidence to suggest that there is any truth in the above claim. Although I am not an advocate of segregated communities or ghettoes, the truth of the matter is that attempting to force people from different social backgrounds together in the hope that their lives might converge amounts to little more than crude social engineering.

The rich and poor cannot be forced together, for they lead very different lives. Broadly speaking, they have different levels of education, different aspirations and different hobbies and interests. They only rarely use the same services, they probably use different hospitals and they almost certainly send their children to different schools. In short, the rich and poor may live on the same street, but they do not inhabit the same world.

Given that the total cost of social housing in the UK amounts to an eye-watering £15 billion per year, is it not time that we thought again about whether we should continue to subsidise this hugely expensive form of social engineering? Could the money not be put to better use by building new affordable homes instead of subsidising rents in some of the most expensive parts of the country? On the whole, the government is heading in the right direction on housing, but it could be considerably more radical in its thinking.

To read David Vaiani’s other articles visit David Vaiani’s Politics On Toast blogThis article is (C) Politics on Toast and David Vaiani. 
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