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Winning the political argument on HB

<strong>by Tony Clements</strong>
by Tony Clements

Former policy advisor to Rt Hon John Healey MP during his tenure as Minister of State for Housing and Planning. Executive Director of Place for Ealing Council.

I was unsurprised to see that a large majority of people support the cap on housing benefit, including over half of Labour voters.

I’m not really surprised by that. The argument on ‘fairness’ is compelling; why should those out of work be able to afford more expensive housing than those on work?

The cap, reduction of benefit to the level of the 30th percentile and the move from pegging benefits to CPI rather than RPI (meaning benefit rise at a slower rate than rents) will cause many poorer people to lose their home and force people out of communities where they’ve lived for years and have roots and family support.

So when Ed Miliband and others make this argument they are rightly defending people who will really suffer as a result of these reforms. But I do worry that it makes us look like, beyond the housing and policy world, as if Labour is defending high benefit budgets and only defends those on the lowest incomes who claim benefit (nevermind that around 40% of benefit claimants are in work).

This is not a good strategy for winning back the marginal seats in the south and midlands that we need to return to government.

So how should we oppose these moves?

We need to argue back from a vision of what communities should be like and then use that as the yardstick to measure and oppose these policies. In doing so, we present an alternative vision of a Labour future and argue for something beyond opposing particular measures.

Central to any vision of a sustainable community is that they are mixed. People accept and strongly support the idea that communities and neighbourhoods should be mixed – with no one segregated by wealth and race. Such segregation as exists in the USA and France rightly draws disaaproval. In London, the fact that the rich and poor have always lived ‘cheak by jowl’ is part of the city’s identity. On a policy front, let’s use the Tory rhetoric against them: both Cameron and IDS have spoken about the problems of concentrated poverty. They are right.

These HB reforms are a fundamental attack on the notion that people should live together in mixed income communities. And it is on that ground that we should oppose government measures, in a way that has wider appeal to even those who will not be affected by these changes.

What we would do instead to reduce the HB bill and maintain mixed communities is another question. Building more affordable homes in wealthier areas is part of the answer, but not the whole answer.

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