Confessions of a Political Animal

October 26, 2008

The quest for housing apartheid – Part 2

I wrote a few days ago about the emerging trend for The Evening Standard, aided and abetted by its stable mate The Daily Mail, to push an agenda which boils down to the promotion of economic ghettoisation in London. First, we had the apparently over-expensive council house for refugees in wealthy Acton, then a council having the gall to temporarily accommodate a decanted council tenant in a nice house in decidedly bourgeois Highgate and on Friday we had the latest installment.

Under the headline £1.5 million houses for homeless, Friday’s Standard expressed its horror at a London borough spending ‘millions’ (allegedly, although the working isn’t shown) on renting houses in pleasant areas of the capital for those judged to be at risk of homelessness. The borough in question is the most aspirational of all – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Of course, the Standard omits to mention that this is a permanently Conservative controlled borough and goes out of its way to pin the blame for this alleged injustice on the Labour government.

The Standard has uncovered one family living in a £1.5million, four-bedroom mews house in Kensington, under an initiative to keep down council waiting lists. The house, owned by a cosmetic dentist, is being rented to a mother and her children at a cost of about £1,125 a week, or £58,500 a year. It is not far from London’s most expensive property, an £80 million house in Upper Phillimore Gardens which sold in February.

The retail value of the home is entirely irrelevant – and probably inaccurate by now anyway. The council isn’t buying the house, merely renting it. So quoting the cost of buying said property is nothing more than a device for to introduce a ‘shock’ factor. Nor is it relevant in the slightest that the property is ‘not far’ from London’s most expensive property (presumably excluding Buckingham Palace). But, just like in the Highgate Story, The Standardis very eager to point out from the outset that the family in question is headed by, of all things, a single parent, which is evidently supposed to double our shock at the borough’s generosity. Unlike in previous cases, the paper has not been able to provide a name or ethnicity for the family in question. Have they learnt that this really isn’t on, or is it simply that they don’t fit with the refugee/foreigner-baiting agenda pursued hitherto?

The Standard is aware of other homes one in a mews in South Kensington and another flat in a mansion block in Earl’s Court which are also being rented out to people threatened with homelessness.

So, that’s three properties identified in total. Only in the eye of a journalist could that conceivably be considered a trend or the basis for a story.

The total cost to the taxpayer to allow the homeless to live at London’s smartest addresses is likely to be millions of pounds in housing benefit.

Having declared categorically at the start of the article that ‘Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being spent housing homeless people in some of the most expensive streets in London’, a few paragraphs later the paper seems less sure – its now only ‘likely’. Given that they probably haven’t identified more than about £150,000 expenditure per anum, they simply don’t have the figures to back up their original claim.

The Department of Work and Pensions has admitted its concern that only the super-rich or those on housing benefit can afford to live in some inner London boroughs.

And quite right too, although I’m surprised that a department under the control of arch-Blairite James Purnell has made such a statement. As I discussed last time this came up, there are real risks involved in ghettoisation, both for the economically disenfranchised and for society as a whole. And if areas such as Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster and Hammersmith become almost solely the domain of the super-rich, the ever dwindling number of less well off residents become less and less of a political priority for Tory-dominated local authorities, their votes and opinions increasingly worthless and easily ignored, confined to perhaps one or two wards. The DWP’s concern is well-founded and the fact that it doesn’t concentrate the burden of cutting homelessness on the least-well off boroughs is commendable.

The article goes on to explain that the house is being provided to the family under the LetStart scheme which operates in a number of west London boroughs, which is designed to provide an alternative to the temporary housing that so many homeless families are shoehorned into – normally bed and breakfast accommodation that is too small and in bad condition, leading to further deleterious effects on the health, educational achievement and employment opportunities of the families concerned. Of course, none of these later points are mentioned by the Standard, which seeks to suggest that it is in some way unreasonable for those at risk of homelessness to be housed in the private rented sector. The Standard also supplies us with the following handy guide:

In Kensington and Chelsea, a one-bedroom flat can be rented out for up to £365 a week; £540 for a two-bed flat; £795 for a three-bed; £1,125 for a four-bed and £1,887.50 for a five-bed flat.

Given that £1,125 per week is the figure that the paper earlier quoted for the house in question, we can assume that this is a large family that we are dealing with – indeed, it could well include in excess of 6 children. Therefore, temporary accommodation is going to not just be unsuitable but also difficult to find – nor is the council likely to have many, if any, suitable and vacant properties on its own books or those of housing associations that would be large enough. The private rented sector was almost certainly be the only option open to the council, and in the Royal Borough, that isn’t going to come cheap. However, a property within the council’s means was identified – so what exactly does the Standardexpect the borough to do? Say to the family concerned “Sorry guys, we’ve got a house but we’ve decided that your housing needs just aren’t worth the price tag. Why don’t you try somewhere cheaper like Waltham Forest? I also hear that Middlesbrough’s lovely at this time of year.” Effectively, by saying that the borough shouldn’t be paying the £1,000+ price tag for this house, the newspaper would leave the council with no choice but to send the family somewhere cheaper, potentially miles away, breaking established patterns of employment and education – not a great way to help a family already at great risk of an extended period of poverty and deprivation. It is to Kensington & Chelsea’s credit that it hasn’t chosen to do this – its brand of Conservatism has always been of a more patrician kind than that of neighbouring Westminster, whose contempt for the welfare of the homeless is well documented.

An inner London borough, no matter how well-healed, cannot expect to be exempt from providing for the homeless or simply to ship those in need of housing to somewhere out of sight and preferably out of borough. The capital has a huge problem with homelessness – not simply the visible rough sleeping, which all statistics suggest has collapsed as a phenomenon in the past decade – but the huge unseen iceberg below the surface. In 2007 there were in excess of 6,000 families being housed in local authority funded temporary housing due to their being at risk of homelessness – this figure had risen steadily since 1998, with 2007 seeing the first fall in a decade (see page 35 of this GLA document). The government quite rightly set a target for a 50% reduction in these numbers by 2010, but London will miss this by some way – however, if it is to even advance towards this target, schemes such as LetStart are essential to move families into more suitable accommodation. And with a looming recession, the situation is going to get even further, with a growing number of homeless families squeezing yet further the accommodation available. With repossessions almost certain to rise, it will be interesting to see how long the Standardcan continue to use ‘homeless’ as a derogatory term – it could soon find that much of its core readership is being classified as ‘at risk of homelessness’ as the debt-led property boom so beloved of the Mail group comes crashing down. There will be a lot more homeless families housed in Kensington mews and Earls Court mansion blocks before this is all over. And there will be nothing wrong with that.

PS – has anyone else noticed that the Standard is now following Boris Johnson’s lead in employing ‘high-society’ columnist and self-described ‘soi-dissant anti-semite’ Taki Theodoracopoulos, who when he worked for Johnson at the Spectator provided such charming insights into his thought processes as

Oh boy, was Enoch – God rest his soul – ever right! Now there’s a man who was tough on the causes of crime long before the crime had been Blaired. […] Only a moron would not surmise that what politically-correct newspapers refer to as ‘disaffected young people’ are black thugs, sons of black thugs and grandsons of black thugs … West Indians were allowed to immigrate after the war, multiply like flies, and then the great state apparatus took over the care of their multiplications. The “Rivers of Blood “speech by Enoch was prophetic as well as true, and look what the bullshitters of the time did to the great man.

Well, what’s good enough for Boris is good enough for Veronica Wadeley, I guess.

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