Council housing isn't welfare

John Perry

As part of the authoritarian crackdown following last week’s riots, David Cameron announced on Friday that rioters should be evicted from their council houses – even though the only thing that we know for sure about the connection between riots and where people live is that some of the disturbances happened in or near social housing estates like Pembury (which is owned not by Hackney Council but by the Peabody Trust; last Wednesday its chief executive said the estate, no longer under the scrutiny of the mass media, had almost returned to normal). Given that fewer than 10 per cent of people in England live in council houses, evicting council tenants who took part in the riots is going to be a very selective punishment – even if the proportion among rioters turns out to be higher.

Cameron says that ‘for too long we've taken a too soft attitude towards people that loot and pillage their own community. If you do that you should lose your right to the sort of housing that you've had at subsidised rates.’ Let’s set aside for a moment the impression he gives that looting and pillaging is an everyday occurrence on council estates. The law already allows councils and housing associations to evict tenants guilty of anti-social behaviour towards their neighbours. The government now plans to twist the powers to use eviction to punish such behaviour anywhere in the country.

Besides the injustice of it – punishing rioters twice, with both a prison sentence and eviction, and evicting people for their relatives’ behaviour – evicting rioters and their families fits with the government’s view of council housing as a subsidised welfare benefit in high demand, to be rationed out only to those who ‘deserve’ it. It’s true, as Cameron says, that council rents are below market rate, but this is the only sense in which council housing is ‘subsidised’: it currently makes the Treasury a healthy surplus (when councils become self-financing next April, under plans drawn up by the previous government, they will compensate the Treasury by more than £6 billion for the future income it will lose). Evicted tenants who move to the private sector may cost more in housing benefit.

Labelling council housing as 'subsidised' is part of a wider ideological attack in which it is being redefined as welfare housing, from which people who can afford to should be quickly moved on. This shows a good deal of confusion about its future: if council estates are places to move in and out of as quickly as possible, how will anyone ever know their neighbours, let alone develop pride in their area?

Despite critical comments from some Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg agrees with Cameron: ‘the principle that if you are getting some support from the community, you are going to have to show some loyalty to it, is a really, really important one.’ This is taking a broad view of community, though not broad enough, as at least one blogger has already pointed out, to embrace the support from the wider community enjoyed by, say, bankers.


  • 17 August 2011 at 8:45am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    There must be a lot of pressure within the Conservative Party to get back in control and show people that they are the party of law and order, and this is what makes these council house decisions into such a dog's breakfast. Thatcher's call was for a 'property-owning democracy' in which we'd all be mortgage payers, tending our gardens and keeping out of politics. Cameron wants to get rid of council estates altogether, or at least privatise them so that they make sense profit-wise. Evicting tenants is a good start for this process, so let's punish these irresponsible parents and ask the hedge funds if they are ready to take on a new investment. The privatisation of council housing has gone on apace in Germany, where hundreds of projects are in the hands of hedge fund sharks, much to the dismay of the tenants, who wait for months for repairs and find their bills go up and up. Many councils sold off their water and electricity services as well before finding out that they had surrendered all their rights in the process.
    Cameron's role is to play the tough guy - class warfare? I think so.

  • 19 August 2011 at 6:57am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    The link below to this morning's Guardian (I know, you've all read this) gives information on the people charged in court in the past week.

  • 19 August 2011 at 9:18pm
    loxhore says:
    My objection to this idea is less practical than procedural: we have a way of punishing people for crimes, it's called the justice system -- which among other things indeed is a civilised channel for the instinct of revenge; if we try somehow to complement it by exacting our punishments through diverse organs of the state -- and on the whims of politicians -- we only undermine its status in our society as the institution dedicated to that task, and the civilised expression of that ancient lust.

    Democratic vigilantism, here we come.

  • 21 August 2011 at 10:25am
    Artemisia says:
    David Cameron clearly is either not in possession of the facts or is being disingenuous; I feel somehow it's the latter knowing his talent for PR and spin.

    Surely the biggest housing subsidies over the last 30 years have been to owner occupiers in the form of mortgage tax relief and the exemption from capital gains tax as people move up the "property ladder".

    As others have said, the criminal justice system is there to punish those who have transgressed. Politicians should let the courts deal with those who come before them and not try to influence the judiciary or to think of additional punishments to enact outside the courts. We put up with this kind of interference at our peril.

    In any case, it is difficult to see how this crackdown could be implemented. What is easier to see, as Tory policies are being implemented is that the right loathe the thought of any kind of subsidy at all, whether it be for local government, education or the health service. These knee-jerk threats are bound up in a wider conservative ideological baggage.

  • 23 August 2011 at 1:45am
    John Perry says:
    Artemisia makes an interesting point: certainly, at the time when mortgage interest tax relief was still available, the balance between subsidy to owners and subsidy to social renters was pretty evenly split. Since 2000 when it was finally abolished, the balance has shifted, but even the last Labour government spent well over £1bn subsidising homeownership through (for example) shared ownership schemes. If we look at the private rented sector, then - for tenants receiving housing benefit - the subsidy is roughly twice what it would be in social housing.

    In other words, all housing is 'subsidised', because even owners who have paid off their mortgages pay no tax on the appreciating value of their properties. Relief from capital gains tax is currently worth about £4bn, even after the recession.