David Blackburn

Housing benefit reform is a Good Thing

Housing benefit reform is a Good Thing
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Dressed with his effortless prose, Matthew Parris has a point (£) that proves why he is the leading commentator of the last two decades. Housing benefit reform is his subject and he urges his readers reject the legends that have accrued around the issue - not Boris, not Polly Toynbee, not shrill councils, not rapacious landlords and definitely not the government. No one, he says, has the numbers but there are several certainties:

‘The outcomes may not prove nearly as brutal as this week’s predictions. What (as I asked above) can we know? We know that comparisons with Paris are ludicrous. All of our big cities are speckled with very large-scale “social” housing of a type that is suited only to the income groups for which it was constructed. There is no way these millions of working people are going to be “driven” from their estates, not least because in cities such as London there is more employment, and at better wage rates, than they will find elsewhere. Actually it is the middle classes who, very slowly and over more than a century, have been priced out of Central London in their millions, and who now commute from areas where they can afford the homes they want.

We know, too, that substantial downward pressure by government on the rents that the State will reimburse cannot be without effect on the market levels of rents generally. We should not assume that today’s going rate will be tomorrow’s. We know that if a year’s joblessness brings a 10 per cent reduction in housing benefit, this must increase (for some) the incentive to take work.’

The reforms are far from apocalyptic. Of course landlords will reduce rents and, on the whole, people will remain where they are: I’m looking at a block of social housing as I write and good luck to the landlord who reckons they’d do better in the private sector.

Naturally, there will anomalies and there will be horror stories, but they will be exceptions to the general. Besides, Parris has the antidote to that political toxin:

‘Ministers must move fast to remedy the particular if they are not to give ground across the board. Small, localised rethinks will prove infinitely cheaper than a general retreat.’