Council housing isn't welfare
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.