Friday, March 29, 2013

Train crash a'coming

John Hemming was his usual charming self on BBC WM, loyally regurgitating his government's line on the bedroom tax. He's had four or five cases come to him so far. I can tell him that there are about 1200 households in Yardley that will be affected by this. We do not have sufficient properties to rehouse them - about 250 one bed properties are let each year in Yardley and many of those will be mainly suitable for the elderly. We just do not have the stock to allow social tenants to downsize.

Partly, it was their own fault for not taking action sooner:
John Hemming: "They were set in chain about eighteen months ago... I know of cases in Birmingham where people have already moved... reason why such a long time allowed for the changes to come in is to allow people to get things organised in sufficient time to deal with it."
Richard Wilford: "Was that enough time?"
John Hemming: "Well, I think so, yeah. It's no good saying its coming in next week when eighteen months notice was given - that's nonsense."
Nowhere does he mention the costs of moving or the disruption that it causes to people's lives - let alone the chance of finding a suitable property - a major challenge in Birmingham. As the bedroom tax starts to bite, people may find it harder to move if they have arrears. He then went on to recommend that social tenants should take a lodger, although whether a tenant can do so depends on their tenancy agreement. Not all Birmingham council tenants are allowed to do so. In any case, the income from a lodger can affect benefits.

I will remind you that John Hemming, upon election to parliament, remortgaged a flat he already owned in London so that he could claim on expenses and "reorganise [his] finances because [his] income was going down". John Hemming has been a vociferous opponent of the Living Wage in Birmingham - anyone would think he believes that our poorest-paid employees, predominantly women and many of them part time, don't deserve a proper wage. He launched an early day motion and dragging a government minister to a brief debate between him and two of our city's Labour MPs to criticise us. He backs the cuts because he believes that they stopped the country going bust (it wasn't) and if people lose their jobs, they have to understand why it is in everyone's interest. When questioned over Universal Credit paying rent to tenants rather than direct to landlords, he said that "if you have people frightened of handling their own rent, clearly they would be frightened of having a job" - conveniently forgetting that many people receiving Housing Benefit are actually in work, but that some people in receipt of housing benefit live chaotic lives and may be faced with the choice of paying rent to the distant council or paying off the dodgy lender standing on the doorstep.

John is wealthier than virtually everybody in Yardley, so it is no surprise that he has no concept of what ordinary peoples' lives are like, but it is shocking how lacking in humility he is about the damage that he and his government are causing.

Let's talk reality here. There are plenty of people who will be affected by the Bedroom Tax who do not have room to take in a lodger. They may have a spare room, but that is used by their child when they come to stay because the parents live apart (and as predominantly women have custody, that disadvantages separated and divorced fathers, damaging the link between father and child). The spare room may be required for a carer overnight occasionally or to allow the spouse to sleep apart from someone whose illness makes it difficult to share a room. The room might be required for medical equipment - it might even have been converted to allow access because of disability. There are hundreds of reasons why a 'spare' room might not be spare at all, none of which make a difference to the housing benefit level.

What we are talking about are not housing units, but homes. People - other human beings - will be faced with the stark choice of cutting back on food or heating to try to make up the difference in income, reduced to hoping that the council will be able to support them through a discretionary housing payment or simply be forced to move. The government tell us this is about freeing up housing for others in need, but if that was the case, why aren't pensioners included in the bedroom tax? The government talks about help through the Discretionary Housing Benefit scheme administered by local councils, but as the bedroom tax is supposed to save £500m from the housing benefit bill, the promise of £30m looks like a sticking plaster across a sucking chest wound. There will be tens of thousands of tough cases, many of whom will not be eligible for help from the Discretionary Housing Benefit fund.

More broadly, this will have a tremendously damaging effect on communities, forcing increased mobility and causing disruption. If people don't put down roots, they are less likely to engage in their community, less likely to vote and less likely to feel valued as part of society. This might be the idea - force the poor to the edge of society and make them pathetically grateful for every scrap that they can scavenge.

We'll also see problems with housing associations and councils, as they struggle to collect rents, which will have an impact on their ability to service their properties. Nationally, only 1% of tenants affected have moved and almost half intend to stay where they are. On that basis, the policy is going to fail to free up housing for the homeless and it may also fail to provide any savings. As the NHF found out, there are 180,000 households underoccupying two bedroom homes by one bed, but only 85,000 single bedroom homes became available last year, potentially forcing 95,000 households into the private sector, where the housing benefit payments to cover a privately rented one bedroom property will outstrip the costs of renting a two bedroom social let. Potentially, that could be an additional £143 million for just that small group - let alone any additional costs for the remaining 480,000 affected households.

Homelessness is rising - up six percent annually in the last quarter of 2012 across the country and up 22% in London. The welfare 'reforms' look certain to make that worse. We already have a housing crisis - it looks like it is about to descend into a full-blown emergency. With one hand, the Budget promised 30,000 more affordable homes at a time when we have 53,000 families in temporary accommodation and then immediately delivered fuel for a housing price bubble with the Chancellor's mortgage support scheme. In Birmingham alone, we have over 25,000 people on the waiting list for a council property - we could use all those promised social houses within the City.

One of my major criticisms of the last Labour government was that it did not sufficiently support social housing, whether council or housing association. This government is making the situation worse and there is a real opportunity here for Labour to put a marker down for 2015. We should promise a major investment in affordable, rented social property. That may mean borrowing, but it will be borrowing for investment. It will be borrowing that employs real people in the building industry to create infrastructure for the future, that can then be rented out at sensible rates and simultaneously control our housing benefit bill.

The government's current policy is morally and economically wrong. They claim it will save money - it won't. They claim it will free up housing for others, but at a terrible cost to those affected, as they are forced away from their support networks, their schools, their families - even away from their jobs, if London councils look to rehouse people in more northern local authorities because of the benefit cap.

I don't give a damn if John Hemming is out of touch or insensitive. The people of Yardley will judge him in two years' time. I do give a damn about the people in Yardley who will be affected by the policies that he so piously and wrongly defends.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The yellow bird flaps again....

As forecast, the Liberal Democrats retained Eastleigh last night. Rather more surprisingly, UKIP ran a close second and beat the Tories into third place.

So, is this a sign of a LibDem renaissance or just a wounded animal flapping around the place?

Well, despite my usual caveats about drawing any broad conclusions from the peculiarities of a by-election, I shall now proceed to do just that. The surprise isn't that the LibDems held on - it would have been more of a shock if they hadn't, given the extremely favourable electoral geography.

Firstly, they controlled the time of the byelection - moving the writ rapidly after Huhne's resignation and thus gaining an advantage. They also chose wisely - a candidate with a local profile as a councillor. The seat itself contains 40 of the 44 councillors on Eastleigh Borough Council - all of those are Liberal Democrat and they have increased their representation during the course of this parliament, bringing with it an effective and established local campaigning machine that could be refreshed by the influx of volunteers from across the country. Finally, it was a LibDem/Tory marginal, so there was still room to squeeze the Labour voters and see if they could hold their noses long enough to put a LibDem into parliament rather than see another right-wing Tory join the ranks. Finally, they have been established long enough to build up their loyal postal voters, with (I believe) over 8000 cast in this election. This proved to be especially fortuitous, as many of those would have been completed and returned prior to the Rennard revelations over the past week and the constantly shifting sands that have passed for Nick Clegg's versions of the truths.

The Tory selection of their 2010 candidate also proved to be a surprising help to the Liberal Democrats. Despite her well-known anti-European credentials and opposition to gay marriage, this did not persuade the sizeable UKIP vote existing within the seat to back her, but may have encouraged some of the left of centre to back the candidate most likely to beat her. She also proved to be extraordinarily gaffe-prone and apparently incapable of opening her mouth without inserting at least one foot - to the point where she seems to have become invisible in the last week or so of the campaign, avoiding two high-profile husting events. Far from being the vote winner that I thought she might be, she managed to drop the ball quite effectively.

Labour actually slightly increased their vote share, but not by any statistically significant amount. Given that they went from a standing start with little local structure, by all accounts, then that's a creditable result in the scheme of things. It would have been a brave pundit to have forecast a Labour win during this campaign.

UKIP have been the story of the campaign with their best ever parliamentary election result and coming within 1800 votes of winning their first seat. Their candidate looked competent and sane - rare qualities amongst some of the UKIPpers and seemed every inch the perfect Tory candidate.

I tweeted last night that the by election was probably more important for internal party politics than anything else. Clegg looks to have protected himself a little, but I'll still be surprised if he fights the 2015 election as leader. Cameron now feels the slavering hounds of the Eurosceptics at his heels again. They've tasted a little meat with the promise of renegotiation and a referendum, plus the minor triumph of the EU budget - but if Cameron thought that would calm them, he's wrong. They want more and he's not got a lot to give away. Expect the Tory party to look again at Dave and wonder if he's really the man to deliver them their first national majority in almost a quarter of a century. An increasing number will decide that he isn't (odd, as he has consistently proved more personally popular than his party in opinion polls). Could that be enough for a few of them to write those letters to the 1922 Committee Chair to trigger a leadership election? Perhaps not today, but maybe later in the year.

So we'll let the LibDems parade their 'Winning Here' signs round one more time, but remember this. In a General Election, it will not be possible to pour the entire party's resource into one parliamentary seat. Those fifteen to twenty LibDem MPs with narrow majorities, whether facing Tory or Labour opponents should be rather nervous. It seems that Labour voters will still turn out to back them against more terrifying options, but they will not always be advantaged with flocks of local councillors, a Tory candidate whose confidence drained away by the second or a handy right wing party to siphon off the Conservative vote. It isn't as bleak for the LibDems as it once was, but this is hardly a new dawn breaking - perhaps just a delayed sunset.

In truth, this was a damn close run thing.