I can’t recall a time when housing issues have dominated the headlines in the national press like they have in the last week. Having spent the best part of 40 years, off and on, trying to get newspapers to take housing stories seriously, all my Christmases have come at once. Only Lady Porter and mortgage repossessions broke through onto the front pages like this. It’s been hard to keep up. The increasingly ridiculous Mayor of London managed to stir the pot beautifully. Cameron’s pomposity and arrogance became ever more obvious at PMQs, further exposing his absolute lack of understanding of what it is to be poor.
Nick Clegg’s synthetic anger about Chris Bryant and Boris Johnson comparing the housing benefit policies to social cleansing was clearly an attempted diversion that only succeeded in demonstrating how threadbare the government’s position is. I am sure he has never engaged in hyperbole before. Of course there are no armies and no machine guns just as many workplaces are not really run by ‘a little Hitler’ despite the protestations of the staff. It is undoubtedly the case that many extremely poor people will be forced, by economic compulsion rather than armies, to move against their will, often out of areas where they were born and bred and where all their community connections and family support services are. It will ruin many of the country’s most vibrant and genuinely mixed neighbourhoods, where rich and poor and all ethnicities live cheek by jowl and have done so for generations. The imagery is therefore relevant: in truth it’s the power these images have to communicate the story that rattles Clegg.
Apart from attack being the best form of defence, the government’s strategy has been to keep the story focused on the few extreme central London examples rather than the many inner London, outer London, Home Counties, and the rest of the country cases where the HB reforms will hit people hard. There are several reforms not just the cap; they will hit poor private tenants, they will hit poor social tenants, they will hit poor homeless people living in private leased accommodation, they will hit tenants everywhere not just in London, crucially they will hit people in work as much as they will hit jobseekers and other people who do not work, and the numbers affected will be in the many hundreds of thousands.
The coverage has also revealed a basic ignorance in much of the media about the core story. The Guardian started its front page story by referring to ‘council home associations’, whatever they are, and a presenter on News 24 asked a guest about social tenants living in rich areas of London despite the story being about Local Housing Allowance caps. HB as an in-work benefit could be a feature in Stephen Fry’s General Ignorance round in QI.
They say that no-one understands the entirety of how the housing revenue account subsidy system works. In truth it’s a doddle compared to HB and the relationship between rents, HB and other benefits. That’s why this story is about an emotional response and a feeling as to whether the government is right or wrong, and that’s why the imagery is so powerful and important. So far, I’m delighted to say, it’s Government 0 Humanity 1.