As fat cat bosses’ pay is revealed to have risen by a staggering 55 percent last year, with Bart Becht, CEO of Reckitt Benckiser, ruling the trough with a salary and shares worth an incomprehensible £92.6 m, London Mayor Boris Johnson has come out as the foremost critic of the government’s heartless decision to place savage cuts to the welfare budget at the heart of the comprehensive spending review announced last week.
Speaking to BBC London, Johnson, who faces reelection in 2012 rather than 2015 and is not, therefore, able to live in ivory tower delusion like his Etonian chums, said, “The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs. I’ll emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London where the rich and poor cannot live together. We will not see and we will not accept any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London. On my watch, you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots.”
Johnson’s comments triggered calls for an apology from — of all people — two Liberal Democrats, education minister Ed Davey, and business secretary Vince Cable, who called his language “ludicrously inflammatory,” but his opinion is just the colourful tip of an iceberg of criticism from council leaders and housing experts who, unlike the Cabinet, can see that plans to slash the overall housing budget from £8.4 bn to £4.4 bn, to cap housing benefit, and to subject new social housing tenants to short-term leases and rents set at 80 percent of market rates will indeed force poor and unemployed people out of central London and into ghettos where work will be harder to find and local councils will be hard-pressed to provide necessary services, and will also be financially counter-productive, causing the overall cost of benefits to rise.
Although Johnson later claimed he had been quoted “out of context,” his concerns were echoed by Tim Loughton, the children’s minister (and a fellow Tory), who, as the Guardian put it, “stressed he was not criticising the reforms,” but said that there were “very real concerns about poorer families being forced out of central London into the outer boroughs and I think that’s a very legitimate concern”. In fact, his remarks were refreshingly honest, and far more significant than the deliberately narrow and misleading focus of government spokesmen like housing minister Grant Shapps, who whined to the Guardian that the housing benefit system “has almost created an expectation that you could almost live anywhere, and that’s what has to stop.”
In contrast to this nonsense, the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations, said the government’s plans will actually increase welfare bills because the majority of new tenants paying these inflated rents “would have their rents paid for through housing benefit.” The National Housing Federation added that, “in areas where rents are already high, such as the London boroughs of Camden, Hackney and Haringey, many tenants moving into new social homes would face bills of £340 per week for a three-bedroom property,” and, as a result, “Even if people could get a job, their earnings would disappear in high rent repayments.” According to David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation, this would mean they “would have to earn at least £54,000 before they could get off housing benefit and be in a position where they could keep the bulk of their additional salary and find themselves better off in work.”
As David Orr explained succinctly, “Because it is based on near-market rents, the new funding model will trap thousands of tenants in welfare dependency because they will simply not be able to earn enough money to pay for their homes without the support of housing benefit — which means the benefit bill for new low-cost housing will go through the roof.”
Additional problems have been identified by council leaders, as the Guardian also explained yesterday, noting that councils in London — including Tory councils — “have privately warned that low-income families will be driven out of richer neighbourhoods to the suburban fringes and parts of the deprived inner city, putting pressure on social services and schools and potentially ‘triggering a spiral of debt, eviction and homelessness.’”
As the Guardian also noted, councils are under no illusions that the government’s main proposals — to cap payments to private landlords from next April, to peg payments to a third of market rates, down from a half, by next October, and to cut 10 percent from jobseekers’ housing benefit by 2013 — will create anything other than socially divisive chaos.
As the Guardian also explained:
London boroughs estimate that 82,000 families — more than 200,000 people — face losing their homes because private landlords, enjoying a healthy rental market buoyed by young professionals who cannot afford to buy, will not cut rents to the level of caps imposed by ministers. The result would be “social flight” to poorer parts of the capital as the reforms, according to one local authority, “effectively make it impossible for low-income households to rent in the private sector in inner London”.
The leader of Haringey council, Clare Kober, told the Guardian that “other London councils have been buying up leases in the borough in anticipation of having to house their claimants in cheaper areas,” and stated, “It’s segregating the capital which is extremely problematic for social cohesion and puts real pressure on services here. In the last two months we have seen an influx of 40 children on child protection plans. That’s more than a 10% rise for us in vulnerable children … which means other services come under pressure.”
No one, it seems, really wants to talk about how the problem is not the poor and the unemployed, but the shortage of housing and inflated rental prices, which is what has sickened me from the moment that the Tories persuaded the Liberal Democrats to join them in their kamikaze coalition government, but in exposing these grave problems, the councils involved, the various housing experts, and Boris Johnson (in spite of his furious attempts at back-pedalling) have at least started to fight back against the government’s monstrous plans.
I can only hope that further sustained pressure will force the kind of major rethink that allows those involved in providing social housing to make practical decisions, instead of being dictated to by impatient ideologues like David Cameron, George Osborne and their other privileged colleagues. To put it bluntly, the axemen of Downing Street cannot disguise the fact that, beneath their talk of “fairness” and necessity, lurks a conviction that a hideously complicated problem, involving far more than the “work-shy,” should be dealt with only through brutal and myopic cuts that promise nothing more than unnecessary suffering on a colossal scale.
Because of their desire to punish the poor at a time of ongoing economic crisis, breaking the unwritten rule of genuine “fairness,” which stipulates that, if you really can’t resist the impulse to bash the poor, you should only do so at a time of recognizable economic growth, David Cameron and George Osborne attracted my undying disdain with last Wednesday’s spending review, which I regard as the single cruellest day in politics in my lifetime.
Given that I spend most of my time maintaining the focus on Guantánamo and related issues that I have established over the last three and a half years, I don’t always have the time to write much about the smug stupidity of David Cameron, George Osborne and other members of the Cabinet, or the particular cruelty that can only come from people with a genuine disdain for poverty and suffering, but I promise that I will keep reminding them of my implacable opposition to their heartlessness whenever I am able.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Ruth Gilburt wrote:
thanks for this Andy…x
My pleasure, Ruth. It makes my blood boil.
me too Andy — I’m seething but I’m nowhere near as articulate as you and I’m so glad you are out there, writing like this x
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington and Aviva , Roland Jesperson. Roland Jesperson said: RT @GuantanamoAndy: Critics Attack UK Government’s Cruel and Ill-Conceived Assault on Welfare – and I'm proud to be one of them! http://bit.ly/cAkcuN […]
Avera Truthseeker wrote:
Reagan started that here. When will people stop worshipping “power” for the sake of circled-wagon REACTIONISM????
Does everyone get a big kick out of hurting poor people??? Is that what it’s really all about? Poor people need to be “punished” for…umm……….being poor I guess……. (but does anyone know what CAUSES poverty????)
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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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