Councillor Guthrie McKie, Labour spokesman for housing, Westminster Council, writes in the ‘West End Extra’;
THE current austerity experienced in Britain and other countries highlights the political priorities that are being used to deal with this. The accepted view is that the most vulnerable and the neediest should not shoulder the larger part of bringing the economy into a more stable position.
Sadly there is enough evidence to show that this is not the case.
Most news outlets have led with streams of stories about benefit fraud – even naming the families and encouraging councils to evict them. This is despite the fact that tax fraud accounts for more than 15 times the amount of benefit fraud. We are told that a lot of tax avoidance is legal. It is not surprising that many of the news outlets, owned by large corporations, are cautious in how they encourage a redress of this by the government.
It is now a common feature of most large corporations to employ teams of lawyers and accountants to minimise their company’s tax liability. In our own area in London, housing is a good example of how low-income families are penalised for being just that – low income. There has been a spate of articles and correspondence in the West End Extra for some weeks on the housing crisis that now hits London. In particular, the impact of the housing shortage has been more severe in inner London.
That shortage is, of course, due to the inability or unwillingness of councils such as Westminster to build more housing for low-income families. One of the culprits in this demonising of low-income families are the property developers. In most, if not all, applications for property development, the developers argue that the required provision of “affordable housing” in the planning regulations would make their application “unviable” – they would not be able to sell the executive apartments at high market levels if they sat next to housing for low-income families.
The council could ignore this argument and, in fact, argue that, because of the high level of poverty and homelessness, it is essential that developers comply with onsite provision for low-income families.
The council do not argue the case for low-income families, indeed they encourage the developer to use the widest interpretation of the term “affordable housing” so as to build “intermediate” housing for people earning £50k plus.
We already know that the cabinet member for housing believes that social housing is a privilege and not a right (this coming from a private landlord who owns many properties in the city).
We then find out that the land and the money we were told was not available to build social housing is suddenly found to build 300 apartments for middle-income earners (£50k plus) and that the council will borrow the money to do that. Faced with a choice of building 300 homes for low-income families, many of whom are either in bed and breakfast accommodation or will be shipped out to other parts of England, or building apartments for rent to a population who have greater choices because of their incomes, the council ignores the needs of families in the most difficult housing position.
One argument used for this is that the council wants “mixed communities”. This snobbishly implies that the lifestyle of low-income families is inferior and undesirable.
Westminster has within its boundaries high levels of deprivation, which includes child poverty, long-term unemployment and ill-health across all ages. The most shocking statistic is that within the one city boundary you can be sure of an earlier death if you live in an area of deprivation.
None of this moves the council to provide a comprehensive programme of housing or other improvements to tackle deep-rooted poverty and poor health.
This takes us to the final insult to low-income families. The argument used by the former housing minister, Grant Shapps, that there is a need to encourage “aspiration” among those in need of housing. This is echoed by the council. Again, there is this dreadful snobbish view that people who do important but low-paid work for our communities – workers in the cleansing department, the emergency services, ancillary workers in the NHS, support staff in school – do work that lacks aspiration. The aspiration argument says that only those who aspire to earn £50k-plus can be seen as contributing to society. Is it any wonder that there is a genuine anger and hurt felt by workers engaged in making sure our city ticks over, is clean, safe, healthy and well educated?
This demonising of working class families is a deliberate ploy to marginalise their needs and to blame them for their situation. This gets the council, developers, property owners and the wealthy parts of the city off the hook.
We must combat this attack on low-income families and argue the case for a fairer society where the moral case for fairness and need before wealth is met.