Do the poor have a right to live in expensive areas?

East London skyline

The row over housing benefit has led to warnings of "social cleansing". But can those on low incomes really have an entitlement to stay in expensive localities?

They are postcodes synonymous with wealth and aspiration; the kind of districts that attract estate agents, upmarket retail chains and endless TV property shows.

They are also the places that many low-income families call home.

Some of these people might be long-term residents of places like London's Islington and Notting Hill that were, within living memory, down-at-heel, but have since gentrified beyond all recognition.

Others might live in social housing adjoining wealthy areas - like the Dumbiedykes estate in Edinburgh, which shares a postcode with the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's official residence in Scotland.

'Let me stay'

Earl's Court

Job-hunting IT worker Christian Romane, 53, lives in a bedsit in leafy Earl's Court, west London, with £125 a week in housing benefits

At the moment I spend 40 hours a week looking for work, but if these changes go through that would stop.

To make up the shortfall in rent I'd have to cancel my broadband so it would be harder to search for jobs and keep up my IT skills. I have no other spare funds - as it is I get by on one meal a day right now.

I could move further out of London, but most of the work I'm looking for is in the city and the increased transport costs mean I'd be no better off.

I've lived here for 20 years, this is my home. It doesn't seem fair that I could be thrown out because of a political decision.

Or they could be private tenants claiming Local Housing Allowance (LHA) based on the local average market rates, rising as high as £2,000 a week for a five-bedroom house.

Whether they are claiming housing benefit because they are pensioners, low-waged, unemployed or facing long-term health problems, their presence in well-to-do districts might, to foreigners, seem incongruous in a country widely noted abroad for its preoccupation with class distinctions and social status.

Yet for all its clearly-defined hierarchies, within a city like London the rich and poor still co-exist in relative proximity compared with somewhere like Paris, with its plush inner districts ringed by notorious banlieues.

Now this balance is at the fulcrum of the row over government plans to cap housing benefit at £400-a-week for the largest homes or £290-a-week for two-bed flats. In addition, LHA will be based on the cheapest third of local rents rather than the market average.

It is a move the government insists is right and necessary. Prime Minister David Cameron has told MPs it was unfair that middle-income Britons were "working hard to give benefits so people can live in homes they couldn't even dream of".

Ministers have further appealed to voters' sense of justice by insisting that claimants will still be able to receive a maximum of £21,000 a year - more, they say, than most working families have to spend on their housing costs.

Yet opponents from across the political spectrum say the policy ignores the huge disparities in housing costs across the country and thousands will be displaced from their homes and communities - or "sociologically cleansed", as Labour's Chris Bryant has described the process.

Start Quote

Shaun Bailey

You can talk about your right to live in the community where you grew up, but where do you get the right to spend other people's money?”

End Quote Shaun Bailey

In the capital, where councils have warned that up to 82,000 people could lose their homes, the Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, said he would "emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London where the rich and poor cannot live together".

In essence, the debate can be boiled down to a philosophical question: do the poor have the right to live in areas they could not otherwise afford?

Shaun Bailey is one government supporter who believes they do not.

Having grown up in a working class single-parent household in London's North Kensington - a once-deprived area which has since become fashionable - the former Conservative candidate believes it is unfair that middle-income couples find themselves commuting from the capital's outer reaches because of high housing costs while the poor have their rents in prime locations guaranteed.

"You can talk about your right to live in the community where you grew up, but where do you get the right to spend other people's money? I'd love to live in Buckingham Palace but I can't afford it," he adds.

"The current system only suits private landlords, who do very well out of housing benefit, and the liberal left, who want poor people ghettoised in the inner cities for their votes.

"The flipside of having a right to stay somewhere is that people aren't prepared to move around. The middle class have always been prepared to go all over the country to find work."

It is a provocative position, but one which appears to enjoy public sympathy. A poll by YouGov for the Sunday Times at the end of October found that 72% of people supported the planned cap.

Such sentiments have been fuelled by well-publicised cases such as that of Abdi Nur, an unemployed bus conductor who decided he didn't like his taxpayer-funded home in Kensal Rise, north London, and so signed a £2,000-a-week lease for a £2.1m townhouse in Notting Hill, and presented the local council with the bill.

No 'right' to high rents

Alex Morton

Alex Morton, research fellow, Policy Exchange, a centre-right think tank

It would be impossible to provide everyone with a house in a desirable area, so any "right" for particular individuals would be based on government arbitrarily selecting certain people and taxing everyone else to pay the high costs necessary.

It would mean treating one group of people much better than everyone else, which is why it offends a basic sense of fairness, and why a majority of voters across all the parties support the £400-a-week cap on housing benefit.

Government should instead focus on improving the number of desirable areas to live, through better policies on schools, housing and planning, and policing, not take up time and energy working out how to select some lucky individuals who then receive overwhelming individual subsidy.

Nonetheless, opponents of the reforms insist such cases are extremely rare, and that it is not the feckless and work-shy who will lose out - according to the homelessness charity Crisis, more LHA claimants are in low-paid work (26%) than are unemployed (22%). At the same time, it adds, some 1.6 million people receiving housing benefit are pensioners while many others are disabled or are carers.

Additionally, the recent past offers warnings about what happens when the urban poor are displaced from their communities, Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates: An Intimate History, argues.

Ms Hanley, who herself grew up on a council estate on the edge of Birmingham, has chronicled the ghettoisation, social breakdown and increased pressure on services that resulted from moving the working class to peripheral housing schemes.

Gentrification has caused many low-income households to suffer, she argues, pricing them out of communities that they once called their own.

And she argues the poor have every right to live in wealthy areas - because the wealthy rely on them more than they admit.

"Thousands of people working in cleaning, catering and retail earn the minimum wage and can't live in cities without housing benefit, but without their labour places like London would stop functioning altogether," she says. "If you take away housing benefit and shift them out, this country's high transport costs mean they'll have no incentive to come into our cities to work.

"What I'd say to David Cameron is: come back to me when the minimum wage is £12 an hour."

There may have been murmurings of discontent from within the coalition benches, but whether or not the housing benefit reforms go through - and Mr Cameron insists they will - the social balance of the UK's communities looks set to change regardless.

In a little-reported development, LHA rates will be linked to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) from 2013/14 as a result of June's budget.

According to Roger Harding, head of policy, research and public affairs at the housing charity Shelter, once inflation takes its toll this will drastically reduce the benefit's ability to keep up with rises in accommodation costs.

"Over a period of 10 years it's going to change the fundamental value of housing benefit," he says.

"That will be the most dramatic development in housing policy we've witnessed for years."

Whatever the philosophical arguments for and against, the social composition of many areas looks set to transform. Whether that is right or wrong will be for voters - and history - to decide.

A selection of your comments appears below

I do sympathise with people on lower income who could now lose their homes. But is it fair that my partner has to work so hard to rent a property worth less a week than the maximum benefit allowance? Sorry but no. I'm all in favour of supporting society, but there has to be a fair balance.

Julie, London

"Why should the lady downstairs get hers handed on a plate"...do you even know why she is on housing benefits? It's probably not cause she's a lazy layabout like Cameron and Co would have you believe. It's more likely because something in her life is something that you would not wish to be in yours, like a serious physical or mental illness for example. I think that those of us that go to work and earn a wage and pay our taxes have a duty to help others less fortunate (regardless of why they are less fortunate or how (or where) they choose to live their lives) and I don't think making their quality of life potentially worse by dictating where they can live, is living up to that duty. Let's make some cuts to the "me, me, me" attitude if you please.

Kat Jones, Brighton

One of the most successful aspects of London's planning is that the wealthy and poor so often live shoulder to shoulder. It is essential for society that we resist geographic exclusivity (wherever possible). The alternative is extremes of sink estates and gated affluent communities, neither of which are desirable outcomes.

Alasdair, London

I find it ironic that I have only been able to afford to buy an ex-council house, whilst people who have never worked are living in areas and properties that remain out of my reach.

Zoe, Northampton

Before we go any further down the debate of deserving or undeserving poor, perhaps we should remember who pays for Buckingham Palace? Let us not forget that it was the city bankers that caused this economic disaster in the first place not the poor deserving or not. Perhaps also debate could be raised on just why there are any areas in this country that charge such extortionate rents that the average family cannot afford to live there! Would that be anything to do with Thatcher's legacy of selling off council homes and not replacing them? Perhaps to create this very situation.

Sharon Gifford, London

I think it's ok to stay in your expensively rented home you have lived in if you lose your employment through no fault of your own until you can be relocated to a more reasonably priced one. I would say it's not really fair to move into an affluent area if you can't afford to pay for it initially.

Kevin Humphreys, Liverpool

Having moved to London from Scotland to progress in my career and climb up that ladder, despite being successful, I still struggle to find affordable housing in London. Just one month ago I signed a new contract on a one-bed flat for a ridiculous amount and was happy until I found out the lady downstairs had hers funded by the council. So, same building, same size apartment, she gets the ground floor and therefore the garden and also gets it for a steal. My neighbour is great but why should I have to work all hours to pay for my flat and hers get handed to her on a plate? Those that are working in the city and contributing need that housing. It isn't social cleansing, it is common sense.

Emma, London

"Opponents of the reforms insist such cases are extremely rare and that it is not the feckless and work-shy who will lose out" Cue massaging of statistics. Key workers such as nurses and policemen receive extra support. Housing benefit is not being taken away, it is being capped. I also find Mr Romane's viewpoint rather farcical. I work in the IT industry and the vast majority of IT companies including Microsoft and IBM have their headquarters well outside London! I support the cap and agree with Policy Exchange.

Dan M, London

What the "rich" don't seem to take into account is that they are the ones who own the majority of rented properties in these desirable areas and that their own demand for high rents is what forces many "poor" to have to claim housing benefit in the first place. lower the rents in line with the basic wage and many would not feel the need to claim in the first place

Bella Woodfield, Wales

The trouble with capping housing benefit is that it has a knock on effect on people with low incomes who don't claim housing benefit. My housing association is likely to increase my rent now to £100 per week in order to claim the maximum possible back from government for those on benefits. This is already common practice among many social housing providers. Let's not forget that taxpayers are also funding the purchase of MPs' houses - houses which the MPs get to keep and sell on for a profit. Personally I'm sick of the public office scroungers. I'd rather my taxes funded the prevention of ghettoisation than the lifestyle of the already advantaged MPs. Funding rents in affluent areas gives those on low incomes an opportunity to progress. Capping at such a low rate forces low rents to be higher.

Jane Jarvis, Devon

I think we need to draw a distinction between people who work in big cities and need some assistance to live within a practical, commutable distance of their workplace and those who do not work at all and simply would prefer to live in an area. I would prefer to live somewhere different to where I do, but as I work I must live within my means. Christian Romane says Earl's Court is his home and it wouldn't be fair to throw him out. If I were to lose my job I would lose my home as I wouldn't be able to make my mortgage payments - that's called reality. I don't understand anyone who thinks it ok for the average taxpayer to fund a lifestyle that they themselves couldn't possibly afford.

Rachel, Liverpool

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