I live in Cambridge, a city where, along with the Cotswolds and Surrey, it is said that “incomes will not be squeezed as much” by the government’s onslaught on benefits and public services as in Glasgow, Liverpool, other cities and the three northern regions of England. Research by Sheffield Hallam University on the impact of benefit cuts in each of Britain’s 379 local authority districts indicates that when the ‘welfare reforms’ have come into full effect, they will take almost £19 billion a year out of the economy; northern England can expect to lose around £5.2 billion a year.
Lucky old Cambridge? It isn’t like that for the city’s poor. The university’s analysis quite rightly focuses on the regional inequality in the impact of the austerity measures, pointing out that it will be felt “principally on individuals and communities outside its [the government’s] own political heartlands”. It is however most important that it becomes known that the effects on poor people living in affluent areas like Cambridge, the Cotswolds and Surrey, are often as cruel and crueller as on those in what are now traditionally regarded as depressed areas.
Cambridge’s overall prosperity masks profound deprivation in the city’s population. The active food bank in Cambridge and its environs is expanding under the strain of existing cuts in benefits and services. Staff in local citizen’s advice bureaux are in despair, saying that they can rarely assist the families and individuals seeking a way out from deepening poverty, withdrawn benefits and disability provisions, impending homelessness. There are areas in the city – Abbey, Arbury, Kings Hedges, East Chesterton – which rank equally on the official deprivation index with places in the poverty-stricken Fens nearby. Up to a third of children in these areas already live in poverty.
Prosperity brings with it inflated house values and high rents in Cambridge, but the government’s housing benefit scales for the city do not measure up anyway; they reflect the lower rent levels of the rural hinterland and so fall short. And that is an unseen ‘cut’ already, even before the bedroom tax and the overall benefit cap hits tenants in social and private-rented housing in the city.
The government hides the brutal reality of the bedroom tax behind three smokescreens, relevant not only in Cambridge but across the country. One, the policy is supposedly designed to adjust occupation in social housing to enable households to move into homes of the size that they need. Two, councils can make discretionary housing payments (DHPs) to mitigate the worst effects of the policy (as David Cameron states, the poorest will be “protected”). Three, our local authorities anyway have freedom to act generally under the “localism” agenda.
If the first objective were the real motive, then the government could have accepted amendments to the Welfare Bill in the House of Lords that would have given tenants an opportunity to move to smaller accommodation before being asked to pay for their under-occupancy. As Lord Best, who led a spirited campaign in the upper chamber to reform the Bill, has said, “In theory the bedroom tax is about discouraging under-occupation but if you wanted to do that you would concentrate on pensioners and they are excluded. It’s an iniquitous tax, it’s not really about ending under-occupancy, it’s about raising money and reducing costs to the government.” If the aim is to cut the deficit, then “there are other people who are better placed to do that.”
Lewis Herbert, leader of the Labour group on the council, forwarded to me a detailed Cambridge council report showing that, in practice, the bedroom tax is not an effective measure to encourage under-occupying tenants to move, while giving the lie to the two other smokescreens the government is hiding behind. The officers’ report estimates that between a third and quarter of their tenants affected by the bedroom tax would like to downsize, but that it would take some two years to re-house them. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has Cambridge in a vice, prohibiting the authority from using discretionary payments to compensate for national policy or even adopting a blanket policy of its own to protect under-occupying tenants with DHPs until they receive an offer of alternative accommodation. So much for localism!
Iain Duncan Smith is also setting strict limits on the amount that local authorities may spend on DHPs. In Cambridge for example the DWP is making a contribution of £182,340 to the city’s discretionary fund for 2013-14. The city council may spend only two and a half times this sum next year – i.e., up to £455,850 – or suffer financial penalties. At the same time, the council estimates that it would cost £2 million to offset the impact of all ‘welfare reforms’, including the bedroom tax and its equivalent in the private rented sector. As it happens, the city has decided that it can only afford £315,000 for discretionary payments, a catch-all fund that covers social and private rented housing and other housing needs - and that only for next year.
It is not possible to assess the impact of the bedroom tax on homelessness in Cambridge. But given the overall impact of benefit cuts in the city, the prospects are grim. The city council received 30 requests for assistance in the first week of the bedroom tax alone. Shelter’s figures for the last quarter of 2012 showed that homelessness in the city was rising, with about a 16 per cent total rise in the whole year and a year on year 50 per cent increase from the last quarter of 2011.
A few weeks ago Peter Morrison, the spokesperson for the churches’ protest against the austerity programme, identified the contempt for the poor that underlies it. He said, “It is an understanding of people that they somehow deserve their poverty, that they are somehow ‘lesser’, that they are not valued.” Lesser people! That is precisely it. On the founding of the welfare state, Aneurin Bevan saw rented council house building as a universal project, believing that it should provide homes for people who needed housing whatever their social class. Since then, however, there has been a growing tendency in society to stigmatise council, or social, housing, in purely welfare terms. So the government’s distinction between people in social housing and home owners when it comes to spare rooms in their houses or flats has some degree of popular foundation. (Though one tenant observed to me, “I notice that the tax doesn’t apply to the Queen’s palaces, but aren’t they on the public purse too?”)
The old saw, “An Englishman’s [sic] home is his castle” pre-supposed a security of tenure which began as a de facto norm and was finally established legally in social housing. Now people’s ‘pride and joy’ in making a home of their social housing, living in an area and environment of their choice, where their children’s schooling is set, and social, family and support networks are in place, is set aside in the new order which regards the properties not as people’s homes, but as units of welfare at the disposal of the state with no regard for the impoverishment or displacement of the people affected. Lewis Herbert says, “For the first time eviction is now part of domestic housing policy and we are at the brink of a system where ability to pay, and not need, determines who gets housed.”