The news agenda for the next four months will be dominated by the European referendum. This is the most important decision the country will make in a generation so of course it must get the coverage, but it’s not the only decision being taken that will dramatically affect our lives here in South Leeds.
Changes to housing, health, benefits and more are being brought in with little public debate and now that debate will be drowned out by EU referendum. These aren’t minor changes either taken together ….
Social housing hasn’t been the same since the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher introduced the Right To Buy, but stopped Councils building replacement housing. Since then we’ve seen swathes of council housing departments turn themselves into housing associations. The balance of grant and loan for building new homes has shifted until there’s no grant any more.
Rents have risen and housing benefit has taken the strain (for those tenants that are eligible). So the way subsidy is paid has shifted from capital investment to individual expenditure and now that’s under attack. The current housing bill before parliament – yes there’s a housing bill, you probably haven’t heard about it unless you work in the sector. Anyway the bill includes extending the right to buy to charitable housing associations and a new idea, ‘pay to stay’.
Pay to stay means that if the household income is above £30,000 your rent goes up to encourage you to leave. This is the latest of a long line of ‘reforms’ based on the premise that social housing should only be for the destitute. New homes for rent won’t be built, instead that money will go to build starter homes to buy. But these will be too expensive for families on a £30,000 income to buy.
I have spent a large part of the last fifteen years working on various aspects of the problems of population ‘churn’ that affect parts of Beeston. An unsettled population leads to all sorts of other problems: disrupted children’s education, anti-social behaviour from residents who don’t care because they’re not staying. Pay to stay will spread these problems to every community with council housing.
There’s more and I haven’t even mentioned the Bedroom Tax, but I need to move on because the government has a wider agenda than just housing.
The NHS is being dismantled before our eyes. Private providers are being brought in left, right and centre. The service may still be free at the point of delivery for now, but it is being fragmented.
Half of the probation service is in private hands and can longer share data with the public sector half. How are staff supposed to keep us safe when they don’t have all the information about the people they’re working with?
Schools are moving out of local authorities and becoming academies at an increasing rate. Not because they are ‘failing’, but in order to increase their income as the funding playing field has shifted. And yet council’s still get blamed for poor education standards. In fact it’s Whitehall that is in charge now.
There’s a theme here of the government’s rhetoric being about freeing up local organisations, reducing red tape, but actually centralised power and control in their own hands.
This week councils were told they couldn’t choose to boycott certain providers and suppliers. Yet this is contradicted by the anti slavery legislation that says you must check the practices of your supply chain.
All of this is happening in the context of austerity. Savage cuts in public spending, based on the erroneous premise that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by high government spending, rather than an unregulated credit bubble. We have all suffered and yet the debt hasn’t been dented.
This week’s council budget saw another big cut imposed from Whitehall. You may think that despite the recent cuts, the council still seems to be functioning. The thing about council services is that you only notice the change to services you actually use. For example if you don’t use the library service, you won’t have noticed that library hours have reduced.
The welfare state was supposed to be about strong support for large sections of the population. We all benefitted directly or indirectly by having a strong stable society. Today the welfare state has been residualised so that the bits that are left are only for the worst off. This means less help for those people and a worse deal for the rest of us as services are broken up or disappear completely, leaving our communities more unstable.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.