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Council rents: dodgy stats and dodgy conclusions

A Guardian poll claims that nearly 80% of respondents agree with the statement that councils should charge high-earning social tenants higher rents.  The Guardian quotes twitter comments including one saying people who can afford to live in the private sector should not be in social housing. ‘Simple. Irrefutable.’
The initial story that provoked such a strong public opinion and huge media coverage came from Westminster City Council.  That in itself should raise suspicions.  The Guardian leads its poll – and misleads its readers – with ‘facts’: that in Westminster 200 social tenants earn more that £100,000 a year and 2,200 earn more than £50,000.  Who then could disagree with the policy they are proposing?  But closer scrutiny leads to the information that the figures are estimates based on a survey carried out in 2006.  There is no information as to whether these are single earners of couples (if both earn average wages, household income would be £50k) and whether lessees were excluded. Personally I just don’t trust this data and have put in a freedom of information request to get the calculations. 
Westminster are using these ‘facts’ as a rapier argument to front their desire to have greater local powers to set council rents.  Very successful bit of propaganda so far.  But beware – they want the local power because they want to put their rents up for everyone not just ‘the rich’.
It is interesting to ruminate on this story.  First, if the figures are correct they show a remarkable amount of social mobility in council housing (2,200 is more than about 1 in 6 of Westminster’s tenants).  Well done council housing for helping people achieve their aspirations.  Secondly, it shows that council housing, despite everything, can still achieve mixed income communities.  Well done council housing.  Thirdly, it makes an interesting change, even if it is dodgy, to see some Tories wanting to get rid of people it regards as rich when most of their policies, especially around local housing allowance, are about getting rid of the poor.
Fourthly, beware polls, even in the Guardian.  People voted yes to a statement that social housing ‘should be available only to those who need it most and increasing rents for high earners would encourage them to move on’ – a totally different statement from the headline that 4 in 5 agreed that ‘councils should be allowed to charge high-earning social tenants higher rents’.  So who was trying to prove what and for what reason?
Fifthly, there would be the small matter of implementation.  To charge higher rents to some because of their income, the council would need to know and be able to verify the income of all their tenants.  It would be dodgy getting housing benefit information for this purpose, and that wouldn’t identify high earners.  I see armies of means-testers knocking on doors, sending out forms and making detailed verification checks.  Even if some simpler means were found (eg higher rents for higher tax payers) the information would have to be transferred from HMRC or self-declared – and in any case would not ‘catch’ the 2 income household earning £25K each.  And it would make the marginal rate of tax for a person passing the higher tax rate threshold totally unsustainable. 
This is a well-worn path trodden by people who like to discredit social housing – there is a fine tradition of stories about council tenants with Jags outside the front door – but in my view it is totally unimplementable even if you like the principle.  So, it has been a bit of a propaganda victory for Westminster, rekindling a few old prejudices.  But even this government isn’t daft enough to do what Westminster wants.  Or is it?

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Rough sleeping is the tip of the iceberg

In a recent post we covered the story of Westminster Council’s plans to introduce a new bye-law for the Victoria area of the city to ban street sleeping and soup runs.

Here, Nicky Gavron AM, Labour’s Spokesperson for Housing and Planning on the London Assembly, says that this ban is just one of many policies that will impact on homelessness.

Nicky Gavron AM
Nicky Gavron AM

Former Deputy Mayor of London. London Assembly Member. Deputy Chair of the Planning Committee & GLA Labour Spokesperson for Planning.

The council made infamous by Shirley Porter is at it again, forcing people it considers undesirable out of the borough. In the eighties it was low income Labour-voting families; this time it’s some of society’s most vulnerable.

Westminster City Council’s pursuit of a byelaw to make it an offence to sleep rough and give away food in the most salubrious parts of the borough has been well documented.

Cllr Daniel Astaire, the council’s Cabinet Member for Society, Families and Adult Services audaciously told the Daily Mirror:

Soup runs have no place in the 21st century. It is undignified that people are being fed on the streets. They actually encourage people to sleep rough with all the dangers that entails. Our priority is to get people off the streets altogether. We have a range of services that can help do that.

But what Westminster councillors have not mentioned is that they are actively seeking to close the very hostels and services that help people off the streets and into a life of normality. One of these is the 100-plus bed Victoria Hostel in Castle Lane.

Westminster – like all borough councils – is given a budget to provide services for people in acute housing need, including rough sleepers. Most boroughs have had this budget cut, but Westminster has actually been given an increase – presumably in recognition of the need. And instead of using this extra money to carry out its legal and moral duty to help rough sleepers, it is slashing services and is prepared to waste police time and court resources by criminalising those who need help.

It’s difficult not to think that this is anything other than a cynical manoeuvre to turn Westminster into one big gated-community, and to seal it and its more well heeled residents off from a problem that’s getting worse across the city.

The combination of a stalling economy, rising unemployment, housing and benefit reforms will all conspire to push many more people into homelessness and increase levels of rough sleeping.

No assessment has been made by the government of the costs and impact of their housing and welfare reforms. The government’s total cap on benefits, which will hammer the budgets of families on low incomes, combined with their plan to raise social housing rents to 80 per cent of market rates will put intolerable stress on housing services in London.

Add to this the housing benefit reforms and the plan to make it easier for councils to discharge their homelessness duty, and the increase in rough sleeping seems inevitable.

Most damaging of all will be raising the age threshold for the Single Room Rate from 25 to 35. As one charity leader told me, rough sleepers will struggle to find normal shared housing. Forcing people to live together is a policy that has failed in the past and will fail again.

The Government must act now to stop rough sleeping getting worse. If it wants to convince us that these reforms are not ideologically driven, it must get tough with councils like Westminster by refusing this byelaw and reintroducing ring-fencing for those budgets that protect vulnerable people.

Without this, there is little the Mayor’s London Delivery Board on rough sleeping will be able to do to hold back the tide.

Most crucial of all, the government must rethink its housing and benefit reforms. As they stand they will lead to social segregation on an unprecedented scale – and rough sleeping is just the tip of the iceberg.

You can follow Nicky Gavron on Twitter at twitter.com/nickygavron.  This article also appeared in Inside Housing magazine.