Thursday, August 05, 2010

Homes less?

Francis Maude said in a Guardian interview at the weekend that this government was more radical than Thatcher in 1979. How true and how terrifying that statement is. Thatcher was restrained in her first term because of a narrow majority and worries that she might lose the following election. It was not until the post-Falklands landslide that she was able to cut loose of the restraining moderates within her own party and to safely ignore the remaining rump of the Labour party.

Cameron and his more radical acolytes appear to be determined not to waste their opportunity and are setting about the elements of the post-1945 welfare state with abandon. The state education system is being prepared for a free market injection and increasing centralisation, the NHS is about to be subjected to a massively expensive gamble of a restructure - against a pre-election commitment - that will leave local GPs in the thrall of central government like never before and now the beady neo-con eye has lit upon the social housing sector.

Just as the centralisation is cloaked in the vague language of localisation, so the restriction of choice is framed in the language of freedom. People will cheer as Grant Shapps, the shining knight of the council housing revolution, releases them from the chains of their homes. It is a peculiarly Tory belief that the provision of a home by a local authority is some form of restriction of freedom, rather than a valuable level of social support. Perhaps we should also look forward to hundreds of thousands of civil servants being freed from their jobs - they are not unemployed, but time rich.

Cameron's proposal to time-limit new council tenancies was first floated before the election when the Tories went to great lengths to deny that any such plans existed. It marks the end of council housing as a service to society and instates it solely as a safety net of last resort for the unemployed and those too old or sick to work. It raises the joyous spectacle of people having to justify the continued occupancy of their home on a means tested basis, a proposal that could actually militate against social progression and trap people within low paid jobs or on benefits, for fear that they will be forced out of their council property and into the private rented sector or struggling to find a deposit to get onto the mortgage ladder.

This compares with the recent proposals over changes and reductions in Housing Benefit, which will force people out of their homes and into cheaper accommodation - away from their social and family networks, schools and jobs.

These proposals reduce people to commodities and their homes to mere storage units. While Cameron is talking a good - if currently nebulous - game over the Big Society, much of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government seems happier following the Thatcher truncated line of their being no such thing as society and demonstrating a heartless relish in driving these policies through.

They are also missing the central point over housing. It isn't that there are hordes of pensioners blocking access to family homes, nor that stockbrokers and barristers are sitting pretty in affordable council property, the problem is that there simply isn't enough affordable housing in the social rented, private rented or mortgage sectors. With the demise of the regional spatial strategy which set down plans for building new houses to serve the demand, the removal of requirements to build affordable homes and the promise to give planning powers to NIMBYish local groups, there seems no prospect that this will be resolved.

Far from creating a Big Society, these proposals will contribute to a fragmented society, with social mobility even further impaired. The coalition are setting and dangerous and destructive course and we can only hope that they see the error of their ways before too much more damage is wrought. Family homes are not ideological playthings.

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