Do the poor have a right to live in expensive areas?
- 4 November 2010
- From the section Magazine
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.
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.
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.
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.