Cutting communities, not just benefits

Over the past week or so the emerging row over the ConDem Government’s various proposed changes to Housing Benefit, particularly the cap on Local Housing Allowance (LHA) which is paid to those renting privately, has taken centre staged politically. 

I’ve already blogged on this elsewhere (before it quite got the attention it did last week), but I’m glad there’s more of a spotlight being thrown on the cap, as it really is quite insidious.

Today, the BBC reported a new survey commissioned by respected national housing charity Shelter which confirmed what most of us in Kilburn could have guessed – that two-bedroom properties would be unaffordable in central London when the £290-a week cap is introduced.

Whether it woeful ignorance or political cynicism, these caps could clearly have a profound effect on Kilburn.  As I blogged, it is expecting a lot of private landlords and the rental market to automatically adjust down to the capped rates of rent so no-one is forced out.

What is more likely is that many families simply won’t be able to afford living in Kilburn and will be forced to move, either to outer London, or beyond that.  The argument that if people can’t afford to live in certain places, then so what is spurious, not just because it will cause individual upheaval, and not just because it will have a huge impact on the areas where people forced out move to. 

You can be in work and get this benefit; many of the people on the lowest pay, doing jobs essential to Kilburn, like cleaners and dustmen, will have a difficult life made even harder by being forced to move their family and spend hours commuting.  Or maybe they won’t bother and will just give up work to live on benefits full-time.  Nice way to encourage unemployment, ministers.

There’s been some strong language used about these plans.  Some have referenced the ‘clearances’ forced on Highlanders in the 18th Century.  Boris Johnson talked about ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’ last week (before being reprimanded by the PM and semi-retracting). 

I’m not sure of this wisdom of using such strident, colourful language (Labour MP Tom Harris has a good argument why here).  But let’s be clear – this is a hugely divisive policy.  It is hard to see how it won’t impact areas like Kilburn, and potentially in such numbers that it alters the make-up of our local community. 

The cynic might add that there is clear political calculation here.  In terms of the end effect, if not the subterfuge involved, how is this different from the gerrymandering indulged by Shirley Porter’s Tories in next-door Westminster? 

Irrespective of this, it is policy that the Labour council in Camden (and Brent too, I’m sure) opposes, and will support campaigns on.  I’ve tabled a question about it and a motion for the next Council meeting, on 8 November, to further highlight the iniquity of this policy. 

The effect of the cap may not be huge in other cities or other parts of the country, but it will be in central London.  And there are other changes which will have a greater impact – the policy that after a year spent on Jobseeker’s Allowance, your housing benefit will be autmotically cut by a tenth, comes to mind.  But as a councillor elected to represent the most deprived ward in an inner London borough, I can’t ignore this for the greater good. 

Hopefully the more noise, the more opposition, the greater chance that even this strangely ideological Coalition Government will think again.

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