Zoe Williams, Guardian, today:
High earners will no longer be eligible for “subsidised” social housing, and will instead have to pay “market rates”, the chancellor has announced. George Osborne speaks directly to the nation from the pages of the Sun on Sunday in a column that doesn’t actually use the words “clampdown” or “crackdown”, but those are the terms that crop up in all the reports, so we can assume a briefing note somewhere, in which the jargon of tackling crime is deployed to describe people who have the brass neck to rent social housing and have jobs.
This is the first strand of the narrative: that social housing is for the vulnerable, and anybody not vulnerable has no business with it. It follows that aspirational people, hard-working families, strivers – real people – wouldn’t ever want to be socially housed, because they would know it wasn’t intended for them.
The language is all about support (“In times of economic hardship it is more important than ever that social housing helps the most vulnerable in society,” began the consultation paper in 2012), but the underpinning principle is that the state has no business being a provider of ordinary, decent housing to ordinary, decent people. It should instead be thought of as the houser of last resort.
That’s a pretty standard Thatcherite line, but there’s more: what counts as “high income” is a household wage of £40,000 (in London) or £30,000 (elsewhere). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week released their minimum income standard figures for 2015: the MIS is reached in a citizen’s jury style: a sequence of small groups are asked to figure out the least a person would need to live an acceptable life. It’s not intended as a poverty threshold, and it’s not as basic as food, clothes and shelter (it includes the category, “social and cultural participation”), but there’s also no frivolity on it.
The most recent calculation was that a couple with two children would need to be earning £20,024 each in order to reach the minimum. In other words, what Osborne calls a high-earning household is actually, in London, one that is only just managing to get by – and outside London, £10,000 per annum shy of an acceptable life. This is a pretty extraordinary manoeuvre, an apparently serious attempt to persuade the nation that a little money is actually a lot of money.
A rather pompous idea in the consultation document is that servicemen and women should take priority on social housing lists; but anybody above the rank of level-three private would, if married to someone on the same salary, immediately be “clamped down upon” and required to pay “market rent”.
The third element of Osborne’s story is this “market” of his: social housing is subsidised, while the price of private rental stock is the true price, the natural one, reached by the irresistible logic of the market. Of course, social housing is only subsidised in the cost of its creation: it then pays for itself in two or three decades of rents. It only looks cheap in comparison with private rents, which themselves aren’t arrived at by market imperatives at all, but are the result of three decades of governments subsidising landlords with housing benefit.
The chancellor’s tableaux, in which high-earning chancers, who shouldn’t be in social housing in the first place, must have their rents brought into line with the private rents around them – otherwise, and this is the best bit, it is not fair on those hardworking private tenants – is wrong, in all the usual, useful ways. The message is to forget the state (unless you are a loser); resent your neighbour (he is probably a high earner masquerading as a low earner, to get that social flat you’re subsidising with your taxes); and trust the market (where prices are created elegantly, neutrally, perfectly, like physics).
Like so many of these measures – the closure of the independent living fund, even the bedroom tax – I sincerely doubt that this will save the money they claim it will, and sometimes doubt that it will save any money at all. Rather, it’s about changing the atmosphere, the commonly held assumptions: life is hard and you’re on your own.
I spent the entire coalition complaining about things on practical and/or human terms: whatever they say they’ll save, they won’t, and this hits the wrong people, and that is inhumane, and what are we punishing disabled people for anyway, and how much is this parsimony going to cost when it explodes down the line? All of that served, by some strange jiu jitsu, to reinforce the Conservatives’ opening proposition, that the country had been mired in a project of human kindness for far too long, which the state could no longer afford.
So while it is useful to critique the bones of this plan, in the way a crossword is useful to pass the time, the vital bit is to refute the underlying principles: the state isn’t over; your neighbour isn’t a crook; the market isn’t magic; life doesn’t have to be hard; we’re not on our own.