Here we go again. This time it’s someone called Mick Kent, £187,000 a year Chief Executive of the Bromford Group (a housing association, built on public funds, who proclaim ‘Our culture: Proud to be different’), getting publicity after writing a letter to Iain Duncan Smith supporting the principles of welfare reform and condemning the social security system as unsustainable and socially and economically damaging.
I mention the salary only because it is amazing how many people earning huge sums feel able to lecture those earning 5% of that about how they should live. His mini biography on their website says ‘he regularly takes the red pill’ with an actual link to the Matrix. Pretentious, that.
Mr Kent’s main point seems to be that he supports the ‘dependency culture’ theories proffered by the now demonstrably incompetent Duncan Smith. Mr Kent takes the view that the allocation of social housing ‘according to greatest need and vulnerability has led to a race to the bottom and a focus on what customers can‘t do rather than what they can do. This in turn has led to the dependency culture and caused deep and untold damage to society’. This piffle could have been copied out of the Daily Mail, circa 2010.
The constant demonization of social tenants as workshy layabouts who should to be forced to work or train as a condition of their tenancy is so far from the truth that it is laughable. It certainly should not be reinforced by those who make a very good living out of their rents. I hate to say it, but the higher up the ladder you go in housing the more often you hear these things said. Perhaps Mr Kent would care to take a sample of his tenants who are economically inactive: take out those who are retired, take out those who are disabled or have a long term limiting illness, take out those with mental ill-health or learning disability, take out those already in training or actively seeking work, take out those looking after young children, take out those who are carers for others, take out those who can only get casual or zero hours contract work, and so on. See what you’re left with and then pass judgement on the tiny remaining number. But never pretend that this tiny group is somehow representative of the whole class of social tenants.
I am not arguing that landlords should stop offering people employment and training opportunities – as Mr Kent has said himself, ‘they have jumped at the opportunities we have offered them’. Quite, that’s my point. People respond to opportunity: otherwise there would be no explanation why there are always so many more ‘workshy’ people in a recession than in a boom.
Some of Bromford’s employment training and volunteering schemes look very good, and I welcome them. It is the conditionality they insist on that is offensive. In my view, there is no justification for general coercion (and no excuse for insulting and superior attitudes). Like some other housing associations, Bromford make heavy use of short and ‘flexible’ (ie time limited) tenancies, which means the landlord always holds a sword to the throat of the tenant. If the tenant does not comply with the Bromford ‘deal’, it may lead to them ending the tenancy or not offering a new one.
All of this is justified by the ‘dependency culture’ thesis. This is a meaningless phrase that caught on because it was repeated so often in the media, and by people like Duncan Smith and Mr Kent. It is carefully designed to make us think that ‘welfare’ is somehow like dependence on drugs or alcohol, people are hooked and need to be encouraged or bullied out of it. Of course people who live on very low incomes are dependent on the normally meagre benefits they receive. Of course they worry that going into insecure work might make them even worse off. Living on benefits as a ‘lifestyle’ is already extremely hard and the existing regime has any number of punishments like benefit withdrawal. Why on earth should loss of tenancy be added to the list, and why should this only apply to social tenants?
Mr Kent is critical of the implementation of the bedroom tax, but not its principles. He fails to mention the punitive retrospective aspect of the policy. And to show how out of touch he is, he comments: ‘Most of the people who need a spare room due to disability will probably eventually be covered by the extra discretionary money made available to local councils’. This is inexcusably ill-informed and I wonder if he would care to meet the people who are in the first wave of bedroom tax evictions to tell them that.
Rather than commenting on the perceived failings of poor people, perhaps Mr Kent should take a look at the vast fortunes being piled up in this country, people who make even housing association chief executives look as if they are on their uppers. My favourite magazine (not), ‘Absolutely Notting Hill’, this month contains an article by Rachel Johnson, sister of the London Mayor. She talks about the decline of the NH neighbourhood. ‘More often than not’, she says, families that move in come ‘complete with a fleet of cars, trained nannies, housekeepers, nutritionists, private tutors and personal trainers (and that’s just for the dog)’. Life is so hard: she says ‘According to one friend, who has grimly ‘done the math’ … annual household expenditure, just on food, restaurants, education, services, holidays and staff, approaches £300,000 round here’. There are, she laments, now 2 socio-economic groups: the haves and the have-yachts. The article is based on her new book, ‘Notting Hill, Actually’ about the lives of such people. Don’t rush to buy.
The point about people like Mr Kent is that they see the poor as ‘the problem’ that good-meaning people like him have to solve. They seem incapable of seeing the structure of our society, growing inequality, the extraordinary enrichment of the people at the top while the poor are told ‘we are all in this together’, decried as scroungers and punished for being ‘welfare dependent’.
Mr Kent could stand up for his tenants. He could do something useful like condemning the damage being done by massive rent increases and the additional requirement for benefits this brings. Then he really would be different. Keep taking the pills.