Home TruthsBoris Johnson is Weaponising the Housing Crisis
The Government’s new housing proposals reinforce a cynical narrative about ‘skivers versus strivers’ perpetuated by the Conservatives over the last 12 years, argues Sascha Lavin
In an attempt to relaunch his leadership after a narrowly won confidence vote, Boris Johnson promised a “home ownership revolution”. But the Prime Minister’s proposal to extend ‘Right to Buy’ is far from revolutionary.
The policy of selling council properties to people living in them at a heavily discounted price has been around since the 1980s, and Johnson’s exact plan to extend this right to housing association tenants was pinched from David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto.
Cameron dropped the pledge after an unsuccessful pilot in the West Midlands found that the scheme further reduced already limited council housing stock.
But it is the tactics underpinning the Prime Minister’s new policy that are the least revolutionary. Johnson’s proposals regurgitate a key tactic from the Conservative Party’s playbook: the Right to Buy policy is another attempt to reinforce divisions between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.
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Skivers Versus Strivers
David Cameron, in his first Conservative Party Conference speech as Prime Minister, attacked the idea of “taking more money from the man who goes out to work long hours each day so the family next door can go on living a life on benefits without working”.
With this, he kickstarted a renewed campaign against society’s apparent ‘skivers’, in favour of ‘strivers’. And this manufactured dichotomy – a 21st Century re-working of the ‘deserving’ and ‘underserving’ poor – has been reiterated and reinforced ever since.
Cameron’s Chancellor, George Osborne, compared “the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning” – a member of the deserving poor – with their undeserving neighbour, “sleeping off a life on benefits”.
Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative leader and the architect of the Universal Credit benefits system, described out-of-work claimants as “languishing on welfare”.
And this is not just about rhetoric. The party’s policies over the past 12 years have pitted different cohorts of the working class against one another.
Cameron cut billions from the welfare budget, justifying the move as “the best way to help the hard-working families that are in work” – moralising the disastrous effects of his policy on the poorest.
The Coalition Government’s controversial ‘bedroom tax’ punished social housing tenants, including domestic violence survivors and disabled people, for having a spare room in their home. Instead of freeing up social housing as promised, the punitive policy forced people further into poverty. The Department for Work and Pensions’ own evaluation found that more than three-quarters of those affected by it had been forced to cut back on food while one-in-10 were forced to take out payday loans.
Boris Johnson has followed in his predecessors’ footsteps.
In October, the £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift was cut, despite UN poverty envoy Olivier De Schutter warning that such a move would be “unconscionable at this point in time”. The cut – described by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as “the biggest overnight cut to the basic rate of social security since World War Two” – is expected to push half a million more people into poverty.
In response to the cost of living crisis, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s mini budget in March promised tax cuts “for workers, for pensioners, for savers” – but failed to shield vulnerable households dependent on state benefits.
Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, tweeted that those subsisting on means-tested benefits “will be facing cost of living increases of probably 10% but their benefits will rise by just 3.1%”.
Sunak has subsequently announced that households receiving means-tested benefits will get a cost of living payment of £650, on top of a £400 energy bill discount and a £150 council tax rebate – but, while the cost of living crisis is set to persist for the near future (energy bills will rise again later in the year) it is unclear how long the Chancellor’s generosity will last.
Through Johnson’s Right to Buy proposal, the Conservatives are reiterating the ‘skivers’ versus ‘strivers’ distinction, favouring a fortunate few at the expense of the unhoused many.
In his ‘benefits to bricks’ speech last week, the Prime Minister promised to “give greater freedoms to those who yearn to buy” by extending the Right to Buy to housing association residents.
People with simpler dreams – like the 1.19 million on waiting lists for social housing – were deemed to be undeserving of Johnson’s housing revolution. Those who yearn to live in social housing, pushed increasingly into overcrowded or temporary accommodation, were sacrificed so a lucky minority can have a leg-up.
Yet again, Johnson referenced “hard-working families” in his speech, drawing on David Cameron’s favourite dichotomy.
So, the waiting list for social housing is likely to get even longer under Johnson’s new proposals. Housing Secretary Michael Gove may have promised to replace every housing association property sold off “like for like, one for one”, but for decades these same promises have failed to translate into supply matching demand.
“Right to Buy pilots have shown that there is not enough money from sales to build new social homes to replace those sold, meaning a net loss of social housing,” said the National Housing Federation’s Kate Henderson.
Since 1980, when Right to Buy was first introduced under Margaret Thatcher, the number of social rent homes has reduced by 1.5 million, with the proportion of households living in homes for social rent falling from 30% to 17%.
Social house building in England is at its lowest rate in decades: in the five-year period from the 2015/16 financial year, no homes for social rent were built in 50 local authorities.
Research by housing charity Shelter shows that fewer than 5% of the homes sold off under Right to Buy have been replaced. The picture is even bleaker in rural communities, where the current replacement rate for social housing is one new home built per eight homes sold, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
The benefits to building more social housing are vast. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Rachel Casey has explained: “Investing in social housing will help low-income households escape poverty in the current economic downturn, and change the unaffordability and unsuitability of the current housing market.” Creating new, affordable housing options would create much-needed downward pressure on the rental market – much needed in cities like London.
Indeed, the London Assembly estimated that there would be a collective saving of more than £900 million if every housing benefit claimant in London who lived in the private rented sector lived in a council home instead.
But, as Thomas Perrett has noted in this newspaper, Johnson’s motivations for adopting this new policy seem to have little to do with widening access to affordable housing or cutting costs to the public purse. Pointing to the correlation between home-owners and Conservative voters, Perrett argues that Johnson’s motivations are political in nature.
As Johnson hopes his housing announcements can distract from his political problems, the real losers are the people who bear the brunt of Britain’s housing crisis.
Those who most acutely face a housing emergency – the 96,060 households in temporary accommodation, the 4,266 people forced to sleep rough and the 1.5 million people squeezing into overcrowded social homes – will continue to lose out under Boris Johnson’s ‘revolution’. They deserve better.
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