Last night, I went on Channel 4 to talk about the changes to Housing Benefit. You can see the debate here:
We should look after families who need somewhere to live but can't afford it. That will be easier if we reform planning regulations so more homes are built, but some people who aren't able to work or face sudden changes in their circumstances are likely to need support.
The Government have proposed two key changes. The first says that you can't live on housing benefit in a property that the ordinary taxpayers who finance all these benefit cheques couldn't possibly afford. New limits will be put in place ranging from £250 a week for a one bedroom property to £400 a week for a four bedroom property. The second says that someone who is unemployed for a prolonged period will have the amount they are paid reduced a bit. If you are going to depend entirely on these benefits for a long time you will need to adjust your expectations about what you can afford. There are also some changes to the way rates are calculated designed to make the benefit more affordable.
None of that is so unreasonable but the housing issue is a sensitive one so it has provoked a furious political debate. There may be some circumstances where it is worth giving people a break, and special funds are in place to help when that happens. But fundamentally families on benefits are just facing some of the same pressures working taxpayers face all the time. Here are a few things that working families, on moderate incomes and not receiving any benefits, have to do day in, day out:
- Live somewhere they can afford. Inner London is expensive. It is madness to spend billions trying to use Housing Benefit for social engineering to keep a mix of incomes in each area. This is trying to deny the basic reality that it will tend to be richer people living in more expensive areas, we can't all live in Knightsbridge!
- Move. If someone is unemployed they might not be able to permanently afford to live in Islington for example, particularly if they have a large family. Families not on Housing Benefit often have to move either because they need somewhere they can afford more space or they get a job in a different town.
- Commute to work. This BBC story from 2003 reported that the average commute to work took 45 minutes. Few of us live on the doorstep of our job and it is absolutely normal for people working in the centre of London, in particular, to travel in from the rest of London or the suburbs.
Unfortunately, it seems like some of the defenders of the status quo expect taxpayers to support benefit claimants to live in places they couldn't afford themselves. Some of the frightening figures they come out with ignore people's ability to adapt to these changes by prioritising space or location and the likelihood that some of the pain will be borne by landlords who make significant profits out of Housing Benefit. They are well intentioned but need to be more realistic.