Analysis: Social Housing - At what cost to children?

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A longstanding underinvestment in social housing coupled with the latest CSR restrictions on housing benefits risks creating a perfect storm that Government should avoid, says Mary Evans.

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Charities working with vulnerable families have attacked the Government's proposed changes to social housing, announced amid claims that hundreds of thousands of Londoners could be forced to move.

A war of words broke out at Westminster in the wake of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), in which the Chancellor George Osborne announced plans to cut the affordable house building budget by 60 per cent and make up the difference by setting higher rents, while capping housing benefit at a maximum of £400 a week.

While politicians bandied lurid allegations of ethnic cleansing, the charities spoke in more measured tones, but were adamant that more families would be driven into poverty and that children would suffer.

Shelter chief executive Campbell Robb predicts the policy will push poor families further into debt. 'Shelter is really concerned about the long-term impact of housing benefit cuts, as our research shows that 54,000 children already living below the poverty line will be pushed even further down by these cuts.

'It is hard to see how the Government plans to lift children out of poverty, when one of its first big reforms threatens the futures of thousands of children who are already living on a knife edge.

'As well as the devastating cost to children's lives, these cuts are also going to bring even bigger costs to health and education later down the line, because of the clear link between bad housing and poor outcomes in these areas.'

The National Housing Federation (NHF), which represents 1,200 housing associations in England, calculates that around 300,000 people across London will be forced to leave their homes. Belinda Porich, head of London region at the Federation, says, 'The situation could easily lead to housing benefit claimants being pushed out of huge swathes of the capital - including places such as Islington, Southwark and Lambeth. The reduction of housing benefit allowances will hit the poorest Londoners the hardest, including families where young children will be bewildered at having to move away from their home. This is extremely worrying and morally wrong.'

The NHF reckons the move to make social housing tenants pay up to 80 per cent of market rents could see the current average rent on a three-bedroom housing association home soar from £85 to £250 a week and in effect cost low-income families an extra £9,000 a year.

GRIM OUTLOOK

The cuts come when the housing sector is already in crisis, with home building at an all-time low and more than four million people on social housing waiting-lists in England, of whom over 800,000 are in London.

Amid all the rhetoric, Anne Power, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, gives an overview, saying, 'The measured view from academics and policy advisers is that this is pretty bad. It is grim. They are putting pressure on completely the wrong people in the wrong places to address the caricature of a refugee family with ten children living in Mayfair, which is an urban myth.

'I am not disputing that there are some areas of housing benefit that need to be tightened up, but this is not reasonable.'

While there is general acknowledgement that housing benefit needs to be reformed, charities are dismayed at the severity of the cuts and aggravated about the lack of detail on how the changes will be implemented.

Helen Donohoe, director public policy, Action for Children, wants clarification, so the charity's front-line staff can reassure the families they work with and explain to them what is happening.

'Your home is the bedrock of your life. It is worrying that the Government has taken such drastic action and has not really thought through the probably unintended consequences. It feels as if they really are taking a sledge-hammer to crack a nut.

'Our initial response to the CSR was that we recognise the need to take action, but we need to count the costs in human and financial terms.

'The costs are clear in human terms. Fear and anxiety can send families spiralling out of control, putting children in even greater danger of neglect. The financial costs are also huge, if you start moving people around the country and start putting a greater burden on local authorities that are not prepared for it. At the end of the chain are the children and they will be the hardest hit.'

Alex Morton, housing analyst with the centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange, also argues for caution. 'This area certainly needs reform, but the Government must proceed carefully. Higher rents and the higher housing benefits they generate are a key part of the poverty trap.'

BIG SOCIETY

June O'Sullivan, chief executive officer of London Early Years Foundation, says the proposals fly in the face of prime minister David Cameron's much-vaunted vision of the Big Society.

'The Big Society is all about people in their local communities supporting one another. How is that going to work if people have to move?

'Tipping families into poverty is very risky, especially where parenting is weak. There is a higher chance of children ending up in an unstable, unpleasant environment, at more risk to their safety. They won't have familiar people to whom they can turn for help.

'This Government is desperately keen to be seen as seamless. David Cameron said at the outset that government departments talk to each other and that there should be connectiveness in everything they do. It will be a challenge with this policy.'

It would be tremendously damaging to families and children to be uprooted, says Tim Nichols, press and parliamentary officer of the Campaign Against Child Poverty. 'There would be the break-up of important social support and family networks; there would be disruption to children's schooling and there would be a further concentration of the most disadvantaged families in particular geographical areas, rather than the more socially mixed areas we really want.

'There needs to be a fundamental re-think on this, starting with basic principles about the kind of society we want to live in. I do not believe that people in Britain generally want to see a situation where some of our towns and cities are becoming increasingly socially segregated.'

A real concern among family workers is that the hard-to-reach families with whom they have built up working relationships and trust will slip through society's safety nets if they are forced to move

Ms O'Sullivan says, 'One of the reasons we are successful in meeting people who are hard to reach is because we have been around a long time and word of mouth operates. That will be a major issue if that community network is broken.'

The Government has announced proposals to support the most disadvantaged families with funding for early intervention and the pupil premium, but she raises the question, 'They have policies to mitigate this and to reduce the risk of families falling into poverty, but who is going to keep track of these families? How are they going to award the pupil premium?' Questions that many will want answers to.

SHORT TERM

The plan to end the right to rent a council house for life has met with a mixed response. While some believe it will mean pensioners will downsize, releasing more homes for families, Mr Morton suggests there is a risk the plan could backfire. 'The issue of short-term tenancies may be more difficult to justify - particularly as it appears it will only apply to new tenancies. So a family member in social housing is likely to be less keen to move to look after children or elderly parents - because they will move on to the new, more expensive tenancy. It is also hard to see how reassessing new tenants and taking their council home back from them or heavily increasing their rent if they improve their circumstances squares with the Government's commitment to "make work pay" and may make tenants more likely to remain out of work, especially if they have children.'

The 'new deal' over housing does not allow housing associations to respond flexibly to local housing need, as they will be denied the freedom to set rents at an appropriate level and grant long-term tenures, argues NHF chief executive David Orr.

'Housing associations had wanted the flexibility to build a mix of homes at intermediate rents and social rents - but now they have an imposed solution which replaces that mix with high-cost, near-market prices across the board.

'We are prepared to look at anything that increases flexibility in the provision of social housing, but we would not support anything that undermines tenants' sense of being safe and secure in their homes.'

Professor Power believes that despite the fears now, thousands of families will not be forced to move. She points out that it is against the law to make people homeless and she cannot see Government changing that, particularly with work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Commons leader Sir George Young in the Cabinet. 'I don't think in the end we will see it happen - but maybe I am being optimistic.'

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