On yer bike!

Housing is an issue that has been a consistent backdrop to all of the work that I’ve done since I began working in statutory social services.  There is a massive shortage of affordable housing. This leads to overcrowding, poor conditions and some heightened social problems.

I’d personally venture to make a link between the previous Conservative government’s Right to Buy scheme and the lack of public housing Especially in the areas where I live and work in London where the cost of housing has made millionaires of those who did access their ‘right to buy’ and thus deny future generations access to low cost local housing.

I also feel strongly because I have seen private landlords squeeze and squeeze those who are still renting privately – including many older people who still have the secured tenancies – as every kind of adaptation is denied as a means to get the ‘cheap’ tenants to leave a property whose market rent may be much higher. It seems particularly cynical when the properties were bought as investments with sitting tenants.

So now Mr Duncan-Smith is proposing a ‘get on your bike’ type policy of promoting workforce mobility and according to the Telegraph, speaks of people who are ‘trapped in estates where there is no work’ without the possibility to move due to not being able to lose their tenancies. His proposed scheme would allow these people to ‘go to the top of housing lists’.

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Forgive me if I chortle bitterly at this point. There’s no benefit in ‘going to the top’ of a list if the list is already full and there is no housing available.

Along with this, and perhaps to promote his programme of ‘mobility’ he also talks of “tons of elderly people” living in homes they cannot run as he announced plans to tackle under-occupancy in large council properties.

I have to wonder about firstly his choice of language when he speaks of ‘tons of elderly people’. Is it really a dignified way to refer to people who have worked out their whole lives and who wish to retire in the same houses that they have brought families up in?

Yes, there is an issue of under-occupancy but when the Tories are fighting for the rights of those who own their own homes to pass the properties through the inheritance systems to their own – hardly disadvantaged – offspring yet they would batten down the right to a security of tenure to those who haven’t had the opportunities to buy their own property and refer to ‘tons of elderly people’ creating a perception that it is the fault of these people that there is a shortage of public housing stock rather than a direct result of the policies of the Conservative Party in the 80s.

More broadly, my concerns about this way of thinking is one of placing the blame on those who cannot find work and penalising people depending on where they live in the country. There is a concern that there will be a shift away from some parts of the country and moving to somewhere in which there might be more vacancies might not be any more guarantee of employment.

Currently and for as long as I’ve been working in London, there have been programmes focusing on under-occupancy. These are based on volunteering to give up a larger property and often involve (or at least the schemes I’m familiar with) financial incentives. Duncan-Smith seems to therefore be promoting a more ‘stick’ than ‘carrot’ approach.

My moral difficulty with this lies around the multi-millionaire ‘ruling’ classes forcing decisions about housing and where to live on those who are living much closer to the poverty line and there is such a disconnect between the experiences of these politicians and their knowledge of what life is actually like where neither housing nor employment is secure.

The solution to the housing ‘problem’ is to shift more housing into public ownership and to put a halt on the right-to-buy schemes although already some brakes have been put on that programme.

I have no doubt that some of the tax credit system of welfare benefits seems to be grossly overcomplicated and not necessarily fair but there seems to be a wholly uncomfortable picking off by the government of the weakest and poorest members of society.

And it’s not a society I feel comfortable living in.

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