The UK Coalition’s Government’s moves on housing benefit reinforce a culture of individualism and emphasise the ‘right’ of honest, hard-working people to live in the centre of London, as opposed to the ‘wastrels’ on housing benefit who are currently being subsidised to live there. Let’s forget that many people on housing benefit work hard but are not paid a living wage. Let’s also ignore the fact that benefits support people with disabilities, mental health problems, drug and alcohol problems and carers. Far easier to tar them all in the mediaeval tradition as “undeserving poor”.
I watched Question Time last night and heard the Lib Dem Ed Davey continually repeat that we are paying these people £20,000 and that this is unacceptable. He missed the point. They don’t get to keep the money. They pay it to their landlords to keep a roof over their heads. What has been unacceptable is that since the 1980s a succession of Governments has given way to unrestricted market forces in the housing sector so that, without state subsidy, ordinary working class people can’t afford to live in the centre of London. It started with the selling off of council houses; this was for me always a wrong and immoral policy, designed to appeal to individuals’ greed and self interest. Many people were caught up with the opportunity and did it; many felt pressurised into it as the incentives to buy were overwhelmingly better than those to remain as a tenant.
Lots of research from the USA and the UK has emphasised the importance of maintaining and supporting mixed neighbourhoods to prevent and reduce social exclusion. The option to buy your council house should never have been provided. Central London has been a no-man’s land for people like me to buy in for many years. Because the unfettered attitude to the market continues with the Coalition Government, along with a willingness, nay an eagerness to stereotype and blame the most unfortunate not only for their own woes but for our entire society’s crises, central London is now going to be even more of a rich ghetto as many of those who have lived there renting for many years are now going to have to leave their homes to be moved out to less expensive suburbs and satellite towns. These, in turn ,will become poor ghettos.
Related to this, I’ve been reading ‘The History of Manners’ by Norbert Elias, written in the 1930s before his parents were gassed by the Nazis and with a really interesting new introduction to an edition published in 1968. (However, it wasn’t translated into English until 1978.) Elias argues that we need to move away from our perception of “the individual” or “ society” as fixed states and instead recognise that we exist through the ever-changing “social dances” that we engage in with our fellow human beings. Norbert describes:
“ the image of man as an “open personality” who possesses a greater or lesser degree of relative (but never absolute and total) autonomy vis a vis other people and who is, in fact, fundamentally oriented toward and dependent on other people throughout his life. The network of interdependencies among human beings is what binds them together. Such interdependencies are the nexus of what is here called the figuration, a structure of mutually oriented and dependent people. Since people are more or less dependent on each other first by nature and then through social learning, through education, socialization, and socially generated reciprocal needs, they exist, one might venture to say, only as pluralities, only in figurations.”
Mixed communities are essential so that we can engage in Norbert’s “social dances”, the interactions that define us as human beings. Previous governments have failed to recognise this and by encouraging individualism and self interest and upholding the precedence of market forces the current UK government is sounding the death knell for mixed communities in central London and causing more social exclusion. Not really such a “Big Society”, is it? Nobody would argue that the system didn’t need to be looked at. However, the current moves don’t hurt the rich. They will still be able to charge high rental prices for central London properties – and, even better, they’ll be able to get more “desirable” tenants.