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Friday18 August 2017

Weighing up the housing benefits

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Council housing is the forgotten alternative to a system that subsidises rich landlords.

The cuts have launched so many furious arguments that it’s hard to follow them all: education, the arts council, defence, child benefit – hell, our Christmas party has had to be cancelled. Almost lost amid the fulmination has been the debate about housing benefit. From now on, it is proposed, the state will shell out no more than £250 per week for a single flat, and £400 on anything larger.

It’s classic Daily Mail. Why oh why should normal hard-working families slave away to subsidise rents for others – rents that sometimes end up in excess of the average salary? Perhaps because of the competition for column inches, the language of this debate has been purple. MP Diane Abbott spoke of the “cleansing of poor people” from smart neighbourhoods. Rather less expectedly, London mayor Boris Johnson said the caps would result in the “Kosovo-style cleansing” of London.

Cleansing is a serious word to use, and it rests on an assumption: that housing benefit is somehow the best possible solution to the problem of housing the poor.

I agree with the government on this one. Housing benefit isn’t natural, or normal. It’s not the feckless poor that it subsidises, it’s the feckless rich, whose mortgages are being paid off by the state. Once upon a time, those who couldn’t afford private rents lived in council housing, publicly owned, publicly designed and publicly maintained. Most of it was sold off in the Thatcher years, and replaced with housing benefit.

Now, one might argue that publicly owned housing was always going to be a bad investment: council rents were money paid by the state to the state and council housing itself – those concrete monstrosities that ruined architects’ reputations some three decades ago – ended up more or less valueless. Ronan Point and the Hulme Crescents and all the rest of them weren’t just social and architectural disasters; they were financial disasters too.

But – and this is a question of architecture – some of that housing wasn’t actually that bad. Actually, it was quite good. Walk a couple of hundred yards away from the organic bakeries of London’s Westbourne Grove, or the bars of Clerkenwell and you’ll find council housing that is nowhere near a disaster; and it’s right next to the houses of the very wealthy. Sometimes, like Keeling House in Bethnal Green, it’s even been turned into homes of the very wealthy.

Thanks in part to the superheating of the South-east, and an Anglo-Saxon obsession with private home ownership, we’re in a mess. We all convinced ourselves that unsustainable mortgage debt was a surer road to financial security than renting and saving. Somewhere in there, the death of the idea that the state could or should provide decent housing for all contributed to that boom, and that bust.

It is worth remembering that the great age of public housing in Britain followed closely on postwar austerity beyond our wildest nightmares. Public housing policy may have been a blunt instrument; but it demonstrated an architectural vision sadly lacking in the slogans of the Big Society.

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