Rarely have I been less impressed by a minister than when I saw Lord Freud speak last week at the Chartered Institute of Housing Conference. It was a virtuoso performance of refusing to engage with any of the issues, however reasonably raised, all to the end of irritating a room full of people. He’d have been as well to stay in Whitehall.
He did however (accidentally I’m sure) stray into making a couple of relevant comments. We have constantly heard from Shapps et al that everyone is being ridiculous saying that the poor will be pushed out of expensive parts of London. Lord Freud took a different tack when questioned. London is a city of commuters he told us. It’s highly inter-connected. You can get around easily and cheaply. A bus fare is only £1.30 and – by the way – he often gets the bus. The average London commute is 68 minutes. Why should people in social housing get special privileges to be able to live next to their jobs?
In making this argument he acknowledges that the government is fully aware that people will stop being able to afford to live in large parts of London. It’ll be a price worth paying to get the benefit bill down and what we heard from Lord Freud was their rationalisation for why that was OK.
Second thing of interest was the staggeringly disingenuous argument that the welfare reforms were being driven by the need to support people into work, and not the reduction of the benefit bill. Frankly, it’s insulting people’s intelligence to tell them the removal of £18bn in a side effect of helping people into work.
He told the audience that the reason for reducing people’s benefit in the private rented sector is to put people in cheaper homes and keep people out of the benefits trap. He correctly said that benefits allowed people to afford very high rents which meant that some families never had a realistic chance of earning enough to pay their rent without housing benefit.
What is remarkable about this argument is they are duplicating exactly this problem through the ‘affordable rent’ model. They are raising rents in social housing to near-market levels where workless and low earning families are unlikely to ever earn enough to pay the rents without benefit. Ministerial double-think at its worst.
As I’ve said frequently on this blog and elsewhere –rent that people can afford from their own means supports aspiration and employment. Low rents keep people out of the benefits system and means they keep any extra money they earn – from overtime, promotions or someone else in the house getting a job.
The fact that the Tories don’t recognise this is the giveaway that it’s cuts and adherence to the market that drives their approach – regardless of the consequences on employment.