John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for June, 2013

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The People’s Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records by Stuart Maconie – review

Friday, June 14th, 2013

No Rolling Stones but Chumbawamba … Stuart Maconie’s tour of pop is an elegant and unexpected take on music as social history

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term “pop music” to 1926, and reduces its meaning to a matter of “popular appeal”, which is fine, as far as it goes. But it omits an essential aspect of an art-form born of mass production, and open to anybody who can afford a rudimentary instrument and fancies a go: an accessibility that still runs through its ever-more varied strands, and surely makes it the most democratic cultural creation western civilisation has ever seen. To return to the OED, pop is popular not only in the sense of being “suited to the taste or means of the general public”, but as something “of or carried on by the people as a whole”. This is what unites George Formby and Tinie Tempah, the Beatles and One Direction: the fact that even if success is reserved for a fortunate few, just about everyone begins in the same place – light years from any conservatoire, plunking at an instrument, chattering into a microphone or posing in front of a bedroom mirror.

As a result, its essential voice is usually penetratingly demotic – and, irrespective of its precise genre, pop can thus enrapture people out of all proportion to the simplicity of its ingredients (hence that well-worn Noel Coward line “extraordinary how potent cheap music is”). As the broadcaster and writer Stuart Maconie writes in this book’s introduction, pop has “a defiant, unsanctioned concept at its heart, the ability to speak to people, to affect people, to occupy people, to transform their lives”. That perhaps overdoes it, but such passions run high among clued-up pop people such as he, and are often heightened by lifetimes spent furiously arguing that, say, the Beach Boys are as worthy of analysis as Beethoven. He goes on: “This is a music that happens without the approval of critic or teacher or politician or pulpit … it happens without anyone’s permission.”

Maconie makes another point: that great pop “both nods to history and makes history”. It can also point to the future, thanks to how quickly its practitioners can move – one laptop, a smidgeon of talent, and off you go – and the fact that it often emerges from subcultures on the cutting-edge of where society is headed. In the UK, it was via pop that millions of people got their first taste of a multiracial society, the normalisation of homosexuality, political dissent, all manner of drug cultures, and more. What other form could have placed a buck-toothed gay man – who also happened to be the child of Indian Parsis – in front of three white longhairs, and allowed them to trade as Queen? Where else could the racism of the late 1970s have been challenged by a salt-and-pepper collective named Two Tone? Is there another form of expression that could have celebrated England’s efforts in the 1990 World Cup via a creation titled “World in Motion”, whose authors – the Mancunian quartet New Order – tried to reference the huge contemporaneous popularity of ecstasy in the working title “E For England”? (The FA vetoed that title.)

The People’s Songs is essentially music as social history: 49 essays about 49 records (the 50th will be chosen by the public), from Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” to Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers”. In seemingly random order and with additional documentary material, its chapters are already being broadcast each week on Radio 2. But its printed manifestation is arranged chronologically – with frequent digressions – from the second world war to the era of Leona Lewis, Amy Winehouse and Elbow. Its essential tale is of a great unfolding of self-expression and what the liberal left calls diversity, with regular outbreaks of grimness and trouble.

Among the hundreds of sub-plots is that of the rise of Jamaican music, and the accompanying story of an African-Caribbean community whose centrality to British life has probably never been greater. This story begins with Millie Small’s 1964 hit “My Boy Lollipop” (there has never been “a more joyous or more significant” British hit, Maconie reckons), takes in the same singer’s lost 1970 track “Enoch Power”, and goes on to the Specials’ 1981 single “Ghost Town”, that evocation of the awful first phase of Thatcherism, as full of pathos and portent as the first Millie record was of irrepressible euphoria.

As proved by his memoir Cider With Roadies and the breezy examination of British life, Pies and Prejudice, Maconie usually succeeds in being at once elegant and approachable, definitive but also self-deprecating: there is truth in the often-heard claim that he is another Bill Bryson, albeit one conversant with the music of both Gentle Giant and Joy Division. And though he mostly draws on secondary sources, his text can still feel revelatory. Early on, he dives into the story of Winifred Atwell, the Trinidadian pianist who was the first black person to score a British number one, and whose 1953 hit “Coronation Rag” remains “a potent symbol of … a new kind of country, one in which a black woman played music of black origin to celebrate the crowning of a queen in a ceremony that was positively medieval”. He tells us that the Shadows’ Hank Marvin owned the first Fender Stratocaster in the UK, “serial number 3434G, finished in Fiesta Red”, and that Eric Hobsbawm said of the Beatles “in 20 years, they will be forgotten”. There are also appealing passages of music criticism: he is right, for instance, that “We’ll Meet Again” is “a love song, maybe, but in the vein of ‘He Ain’t Heavy … He’s My Brother’, ’You’ve Got a Friend’ or ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’”.

Maconie is something of a contrarian, and there are aspects of the book that take him well beyond the standard rock-critic school of thought: there are no chapters devoted to such titans as the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, but space for Spandau Ballet and Chumbawamba. His claim that “viewed by any sensible criteria, the Beatles were a manufactured band” is a flashy pub-debate gambit that enlivens the text, but does not stand up to scrutiny. But in leaving behind the usual verities, he scores some bullseyes. His single most inspired inclusion is Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”, a brilliantly unsettling portrait of a young gay man forced to leave home and head for the city, and a breakthrough hit in all kinds of ways, “with its compellingly chilly ambience, motorik dance beat and the social realism of its lyric and video”.

Strangely, there is little in the book on the miners’ strike, arguably the greatest domestic political watershed of the past 30 years, and an episode tightly woven into the story of British pop via the bands and singers who variously captured the cold, warlike atmosphere of 1984-5 (witness the Smiths’ album Meat Is Murder), directly essayed those years’ events (Billy Bragg, Paul Weller’s Style Council), or gave the cause their support (as happened with George Michael’s pop sensation Wham!). A chapter named after the Who’s hit single “5:15″ strangely omits to mention either that song, or Quadrophenia, the socio-historical concept album that spawned it. And there are occasional lapses into cliche – “the past is a foreign country”, “double whammy” – that would barely register in a radio script, but rather spoil the flow of a book.

On page after page, though, The People’s Songs capably reminds you that pop remains that most paradoxical of forms – in which those who aim for sociopolitical significance often fall flat – and that history honours people who, to quote from an old Lindsay Anderson script, would not know Karl Marx from a toffee apple (there is not, for instance, a single U2 song with the same zeitgeisty oomph as, say, the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”). Moreover, contrary to claims that pop music is dead, the story goes on, as proved by a paragraph about Plan B and Dizzee Rascal: one white, the other black, both products of east London, who have impressively channelled the currents of their time: “In iLL Manors,” Maconie writes, “Plan B excoriates little rich boys like David Cameron. At the same time he stars in glossy movie adaptations of The Sweeney. Dizzee Rascal raps about life at the bottom of the pile, while performing ‘Bonkers’ at the glitzy opening of he Olympics … The two Britains of 2013 sit side by side uneasily … raising interesting questions about culture, class and power. In the cracks, gaps and faultlines between the generations, the classes, the races, the haves and have nots, subcultures like grime continue to breed and multiply in the dark corners, before teeming into the light.”

John Harris

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The bedroom tax has made huge problems even worse | John Harris

Monday, June 10th, 2013

The government’s housing benefit changes are a mess, ramping up arrears and emptying out streets. But what would Labour do differently?

When I met the Holden family back in January, they were worried – scared, even – about the looming arrival of the bedroom tax. They live in Hartlepool. Stuart, 36, and his wife Lorna, 33, have four kids: Faith, Noah, Elijah, and four-year-old Sam, who’s autistic. In the five-bedroom home they rent from a local housing association, one room is given over to Sam, so he can use it as a sensory space: somewhere to calm down and readjust, which is therefore an essential part of his everyday life. Unfortunately, as they half-expected, this crucial detail has so far been steamrollered by Whitehall diktat, and the Holdens have been judged to be “under-occupying” by two bedrooms. As a result, their £114-a-week housing benefit has been suddenly cut by £28.

The Holdens are currently behind on their rent, but have come to an arrangement with their housing association. They have appealed to their local council and cited Sam’s needs, but so far heard nothing back. Meanwhile, though Stuart has a job in nearby Darlington, life has become even more difficult, and their £80-a-week food budget has taken yet another hit. “I buy a lot of reduced-to-clear stuff now,” says Lorna. “And rather than doing one big weekly shop, I’m having to look for bargains.” Their street, they say, now seems be noticeably less populated. “Lots of people have moved out since this benefit came into effect,” she says.

Of late, coverage of what the government is up to has tended to concentrate on the kind of things that get Westminster in a lather: David Cameron’s travails over the EU, the Tories’ increasingly semi-detached relationship with the Liberal Democrats. However, in large swaths of the real world, the big story is still the government’s crazed drive on so-called welfare reform, and the chaos that is being sown as a result.

As was proved by the outrage that erupted just before its imposition, the bedroom tax is probably the single most glaring example. But the media tends to go a bundle on a story and then decide it has had enough – and in this case, the result has been a torrent of coverage in advance of the measure, and not nearly enough stuff about what is now actually happening.

The answer is straightforward enough: everything that was predicted, and more. Remember: the avowed aim of the policy – whereby housing benefit is docked by 14% a week for one “spare” room, and 25% for two or more – was to somehow push people out of “under-occupied” social housing, let in people from more cramped homes and thus pull off some miraculous national readjustment. But as anger mounted, even the Department for Work and Pensions seemed to accept that this was a vain hope. “Most people will not move,” said a less-than-explanatory statement from the DWP that arrived in my inbox.

And so it has proved, because the obstacles are as immovable as scores of people said. One- and two-bed flats in particular are impossible to come by and, in any case, people are understandably reluctant to leave behind the networks of family and friends. So, they are staying put, and suffering – as proved by a slow trickle of human stories, which have already included one suicide.

Councils and housing associations forecast huge increases in rent arrears, and the financial problems that would create, which is exactly what has come to pass. In Leeds, the city council has announced that it will reclassify rooms in 837 houses and attempt to avoid the worst – but 7,000 households have been hit, and 2,800 of them are now behind on their payments, so the council is already facing total arrears of £138,000. By the end of the financial year, those losses look set to easily top £1m, which will have profound consequences for the money that can be spent on maintenance and repairs – and, over time, the building of any new homes.

In Moss Side in Manchester, the Mosscare Housing Association reckons that 41% of its affected tenants are in arrears; in East Ayrshire, the council puts the figure at 75%. Moreover, the effects of the bedroom tax on some places are almost comically perverse. As the Holden family’s experience suggests, in some neighbourhoods, houses and streets are emptying out: the result is not a reduction in “under-occupancy”, but no occupancy at all.

Evidence recently released by the community network Locality and the Joseph Rowntree foundation certainly says as much. It quotes a woman from the Norris Green area of Liverpool, who says: “The social landlords would lease the houses to individual people on the basis that it was better to have the houses occupied than to have them empty … I walked just from my house to the bus stop and counted 11 houses tinned up because the social landlords can’t lease them, because of the under-occupancy.”

“Tinning up” is Liverpudlian slang for putting up metal screens on houses that have become empty. The woman goes on: “It’s madness. How can you say you’re saving money when you’re destroying a community?”

For housing associations in particular, all this sits in the middle of a mounting nightmare. Grants for the building of social housing have been slashed. Worse still, October sees the arrival of the grandest folly of all by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith: universal credit. Under the scheme, most working-age benefits will be folded into a single payment, and the portion that covers housing benefit will be paid directly to tenants, as opposed to councils and housing associations. As the government’s own pilot schemes have suggested, arrears are predicted to skyrocket once again.Down the coast from Holdens’ home in Hartlepool, the Coast and Country housing association sees to around 10,000 homes, spread across South Teesside. Its chief executive, Iain Sim, says he has been given £130,000 of the government money intended to assist people hit by the bedroom tax, and half of it has gone already. The policy’s effects, he says, will “get worse – it’s going to be cumulative”. He is already seeing tenants reduced to having £20 a week to spend on food, clothes and fuel bills. Given the local shortage of one-bedroom homes, he says it would take 37 years to rehouse the association’s “under-occupying” tenants into the one-bedroom flats that the government seems to assume exist. If they all simultaneously rented private flats, he reckons it would cost £500,000 a year in housing benefit – far, far more than what keeping them in places with supposed spare rooms entails. “None of this makes sense,” he says.

So, the government’s benefits policy is in a mess. Its housing policy is a fiasco, and it is making huge problems even worse. And one big question sits under this. In the event that 2015 sees a change of government, will this be at least one of the cuts that Labour might repeal?

On Friday, I spoke to someone high up in the party who I was told would know the answer. “The government should drop the bedroom tax now,” he told me. “But as with everything else, we’re not making spending commitments before 2015.” On one level, that’s a matter of inevitable realpolitik. But in Hartlepool, Redcar, Leeds, Manchester and beyond, it will doubtless look like yet another example of the coldness of modern politics – all despair, and no hope.

John Harris

guardian.co.uk © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Posted in Guardian RSS | No Comments »

The bedroom tax has made huge problems even worse | John Harris

Monday, June 10th, 2013

The government’s housing benefit changes are a mess, ramping up arrears and emptying out streets. But what would Labour do differently?

When I met the Holden family back in January, they were worried – scared, even – about the looming arrival of the bedroom tax. They live in Hartlepool. Stuart, 36, and his wife Lorna, 33, have four kids: Faith, Noah, Elijah, and four-year-old Sam, who’s autistic. In the five-bedroom home they rent from a local housing association, one room is given over to Sam, so he can use it as a sensory space: somewhere to calm down and readjust, which is therefore an essential part of his everyday life. Unfortunately, as they half-expected, this crucial detail has so far been steamrollered by Whitehall diktat, and the Holdens have been judged to be “under-occupying” by two bedrooms. As a result, their £114-a-week housing benefit has been suddenly cut by £28.

The Holdens are currently behind on their rent, but have come to an arrangement with their housing association. They have appealed to their local council and cited Sam’s needs, but so far heard nothing back. Meanwhile, though Stuart has a job in nearby Darlington, life has become even more difficult, and their £80-a-week food budget has taken yet another hit. “I buy a lot of reduced-to-clear stuff now,” says Lorna. “And rather than doing one big weekly shop, I’m having to look for bargains.” Their street, they say, now seems be noticeably less populated. “Lots of people have moved out since this benefit came into effect,” she says.

Of late, coverage of what the government is up to has tended to concentrate on the kind of things that get Westminster in a lather: David Cameron’s travails over the EU, the Tories’ increasingly semi-detached relationship with the Liberal Democrats. However, in large swaths of the real world, the big story is still the government’s crazed drive on so-called welfare reform, and the chaos that is being sown as a result.

As was proved by the outrage that erupted just before its imposition, the bedroom tax is probably the single most glaring example. But the media tends to go a bundle on a story and then decide it has had enough – and in this case, the result has been a torrent of coverage in advance of the measure, and not nearly enough stuff about what is now actually happening.

The answer is straightforward enough: everything that was predicted, and more. Remember: the avowed aim of the policy – whereby housing benefit is docked by 14% a week for one “spare” room, and 25% for two or more – was to somehow push people out of “under-occupied” social housing, let in people from more cramped homes and thus pull off some miraculous national readjustment. But as anger mounted, even the Department for Work and Pensions seemed to accept that this was a vain hope. “Most people will not move,” said a less-than-explanatory statement from the DWP that arrived in my inbox.

And so it has proved, because the obstacles are as immovable as scores of people said. One- and two-bed flats in particular are impossible to come by and, in any case, people are understandably reluctant to leave behind the networks of family and friends. So, they are staying put, and suffering – as proved by a slow trickle of human stories, which have already included one suicide.

Councils and housing associations forecast huge increases in rent arrears, and the financial problems that would create, which is exactly what has come to pass. In Leeds, the city council has announced that it will reclassify rooms in 837 houses and attempt to avoid the worst – but 7,000 households have been hit, and 2,800 of them are now behind on their payments, so the council is already facing total arrears of £138,000. By the end of the financial year, those losses look set to easily top £1m, which will have profound consequences for the money that can be spent on maintenance and repairs – and, over time, the building of any new homes.

In Moss Side in Manchester, the Mosscare Housing Association reckons that 41% of its affected tenants are in arrears; in East Ayrshire, the council puts the figure at 75%. Moreover, the effects of the bedroom tax on some places are almost comically perverse. As the Holden family’s experience suggests, in some neighbourhoods, houses and streets are emptying out: the result is not a reduction in “under-occupancy”, but no occupancy at all.

Evidence recently released by the community network Locality and the Joseph Rowntree foundation certainly says as much. It quotes a woman from the Norris Green area of Liverpool, who says: “The social landlords would lease the houses to individual people on the basis that it was better to have the houses occupied than to have them empty … I walked just from my house to the bus stop and counted 11 houses tinned up because the social landlords can’t lease them, because of the under-occupancy.”

“Tinning up” is Liverpudlian slang for putting up metal screens on houses that have become empty. The woman goes on: “It’s madness. How can you say you’re saving money when you’re destroying a community?”

For housing associations in particular, all this sits in the middle of a mounting nightmare. Grants for the building of social housing have been slashed. Worse still, October sees the arrival of the grandest folly of all by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith: universal credit. Under the scheme, most working-age benefits will be folded into a single payment, and the portion that covers housing benefit will be paid directly to tenants, as opposed to councils and housing associations. As the government’s own pilot schemes have suggested, arrears are predicted to skyrocket once again.Down the coast from Holdens’ home in Hartlepool, the Coast and Country housing association sees to around 10,000 homes, spread across South Teesside. Its chief executive, Iain Sim, says he has been given £130,000 of the government money intended to assist people hit by the bedroom tax, and half of it has gone already. The policy’s effects, he says, will “get worse – it’s going to be cumulative”. He is already seeing tenants reduced to having £20 a week to spend on food, clothes and fuel bills. Given the local shortage of one-bedroom homes, he says it would take 37 years to rehouse the association’s “under-occupying” tenants into the one-bedroom flats that the government seems to assume exist. If they all simultaneously rented private flats, he reckons it would cost £500,000 a year in housing benefit – far, far more than what keeping them in places with supposed spare rooms entails. “None of this makes sense,” he says.

So, the government’s benefits policy is in a mess. Its housing policy is a fiasco, and it is making huge problems even worse. And one big question sits under this. In the event that 2015 sees a change of government, will this be at least one of the cuts that Labour might repeal?

On Friday, I spoke to someone high up in the party who I was told would know the answer. “The government should drop the bedroom tax now,” he told me. “But as with everything else, we’re not making spending commitments before 2015.” On one level, that’s a matter of inevitable realpolitik. But in Hartlepool, Redcar, Leeds, Manchester and beyond, it will doubtless look like yet another example of the coldness of modern politics – all despair, and no hope.

John Harris

guardian.co.uk © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Posted in Guardian RSS | No Comments »

The bedroom tax has made huge problems even worse | John Harris

Monday, June 10th, 2013

The government’s housing benefit changes are a mess, ramping up arrears and emptying out streets. But what would Labour do differently?

When I met the Holden family back in January, they were worried – scared, even – about the looming arrival of the bedroom tax. They live in Hartlepool. Stuart, 36, and his wife Lorna, 33, have four kids: Faith, Noah, Elijah, and four-year-old Sam, who’s autistic. In the five-bedroom home they rent from a local housing association, one room is given over to Sam, so he can use it as a sensory space: somewhere to calm down and readjust, which is therefore an essential part of his everyday life. Unfortunately, as they half-expected, this crucial detail has so far been steamrollered by Whitehall diktat, and the Holdens have been judged to be “under-occupying” by two bedrooms. As a result, their £114-a-week housing benefit has been suddenly cut by £28.

The Holdens are currently behind on their rent, but have come to an arrangement with their housing association. They have appealed to their local council and cited Sam’s needs, but so far heard nothing back. Meanwhile, though Stuart has a job in nearby Darlington, life has become even more difficult, and their £80-a-week food budget has taken yet another hit. “I buy a lot of reduced-to-clear stuff now,” says Lorna. “And rather than doing one big weekly shop, I’m having to look for bargains.” Their street, they say, now seems be noticeably less populated. “Lots of people have moved out since this benefit came into effect,” she says.

Of late, coverage of what the government is up to has tended to concentrate on the kind of things that get Westminster in a lather: David Cameron’s travails over the EU, the Tories’ increasingly semi-detached relationship with the Liberal Democrats. However, in large swaths of the real world, the big story is still the government’s crazed drive on so-called welfare reform, and the chaos that is being sown as a result.

As was proved by the outrage that erupted just before its imposition, the bedroom tax is probably the single most glaring example. But the media tends to go a bundle on a story and then decide it has had enough – and in this case, the result has been a torrent of coverage in advance of the measure, and not nearly enough stuff about what is now actually happening.

The answer is straightforward enough: everything that was predicted, and more. Remember: the avowed aim of the policy – whereby housing benefit is docked by 14% a week for one “spare” room, and 25% for two or more – was to somehow push people out of “under-occupied” social housing, let in people from more cramped homes and thus pull off some miraculous national readjustment. But as anger mounted, even the Department for Work and Pensions seemed to accept that this was a vain hope. “Most people will not move,” said a less-than-explanatory statement from the DWP that arrived in my inbox.

And so it has proved, because the obstacles are as immovable as scores of people said. One- and two-bed flats in particular are impossible to come by and, in any case, people are understandably reluctant to leave behind the networks of family and friends. So, they are staying put, and suffering – as proved by a slow trickle of human stories, which have already included one suicide.

Councils and housing associations forecast huge increases in rent arrears, and the financial problems that would create, which is exactly what has come to pass. In Leeds, the city council has announced that it will reclassify rooms in 837 houses and attempt to avoid the worst – but 7,000 households have been hit, and 2,800 of them are now behind on their payments, so the council is already facing total arrears of £138,000. By the end of the financial year, those losses look set to easily top £1m, which will have profound consequences for the money that can be spent on maintenance and repairs – and, over time, the building of any new homes.

In Moss Side in Manchester, the Mosscare Housing Association reckons that 41% of its affected tenants are in arrears; in East Ayrshire, the council puts the figure at 75%. Moreover, the effects of the bedroom tax on some places are almost comically perverse. As the Holden family’s experience suggests, in some neighbourhoods, houses and streets are emptying out: the result is not a reduction in “under-occupancy”, but no occupancy at all.

Evidence recently released by the community network Locality and the Joseph Rowntree foundation certainly says as much. It quotes a woman from the Norris Green area of Liverpool, who says: “The social landlords would lease the houses to individual people on the basis that it was better to have the houses occupied than to have them empty … I walked just from my house to the bus stop and counted 11 houses tinned up because the social landlords can’t lease them, because of the under-occupancy.”

“Tinning up” is Liverpudlian slang for putting up metal screens on houses that have become empty. The woman goes on: “It’s madness. How can you say you’re saving money when you’re destroying a community?”

For housing associations in particular, all this sits in the middle of a mounting nightmare. Grants for the building of social housing have been slashed. Worse still, October sees the arrival of the grandest folly of all by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith: universal credit. Under the scheme, most working-age benefits will be folded into a single payment, and the portion that covers housing benefit will be paid directly to tenants, as opposed to councils and housing associations. As the government’s own pilot schemes have suggested, arrears are predicted to skyrocket once again.Down the coast from Holdens’ home in Hartlepool, the Coast and Country housing association sees to around 10,000 homes, spread across South Teesside. Its chief executive, Iain Sim, says he has been given £130,000 of the government money intended to assist people hit by the bedroom tax, and half of it has gone already. The policy’s effects, he says, will “get worse – it’s going to be cumulative”. He is already seeing tenants reduced to having £20 a week to spend on food, clothes and fuel bills. Given the local shortage of one-bedroom homes, he says it would take 37 years to rehouse the association’s “under-occupying” tenants into the one-bedroom flats that the government seems to assume exist. If they all simultaneously rented private flats, he reckons it would cost £500,000 a year in housing benefit – far, far more than what keeping them in places with supposed spare rooms entails. “None of this makes sense,” he says.

So, the government’s benefits policy is in a mess. Its housing policy is a fiasco, and it is making huge problems even worse. And one big question sits under this. In the event that 2015 sees a change of government, will this be at least one of the cuts that Labour might repeal?

On Friday, I spoke to someone high up in the party who I was told would know the answer. “The government should drop the bedroom tax now,” he told me. “But as with everything else, we’re not making spending commitments before 2015.” On one level, that’s a matter of inevitable realpolitik. But in Hartlepool, Redcar, Leeds, Manchester and beyond, it will doubtless look like yet another example of the coldness of modern politics – all despair, and no hope.

John Harris

guardian.co.uk © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Posted in Guardian RSS | No Comments »

The bedroom tax has made huge problems even worse | John Harris

Monday, June 10th, 2013

The government’s housing benefit changes are a mess, ramping up arrears and emptying out streets. But what would Labour do differently?

When I met the Holden family back in January, they were worried – scared, even – about the looming arrival of the bedroom tax. They live in Hartlepool. Stuart, 36, and his wife Lorna, 33, have four kids: Faith, Noah, Elijah, and four-year-old Sam, who’s autistic. In the five-bedroom home they rent from a local housing association, one room is given over to Sam, so he can use it as a sensory space: somewhere to calm down and readjust, which is therefore an essential part of his everyday life. Unfortunately, as they half-expected, this crucial detail has so far been steamrollered by Whitehall diktat, and the Holdens have been judged to be “under-occupying” by two bedrooms. As a result, their £114-a-week housing benefit has been suddenly cut by £28.

The Holdens are currently behind on their rent, but have come to an arrangement with their housing association. They have appealed to their local council and cited Sam’s needs, but so far heard nothing back. Meanwhile, though Stuart has a job in nearby Darlington, life has become even more difficult, and their £80-a-week food budget has taken yet another hit. “I buy a lot of reduced-to-clear stuff now,” says Lorna. “And rather than doing one big weekly shop, I’m having to look for bargains.” Their street, they say, now seems be noticeably less populated. “Lots of people have moved out since this benefit came into effect,” she says.

Of late, coverage of what the government is up to has tended to concentrate on the kind of things that get Westminster in a lather: David Cameron’s travails over the EU, the Tories’ increasingly semi-detached relationship with the Liberal Democrats. However, in large swaths of the real world, the big story is still the government’s crazed drive on so-called welfare reform, and the chaos that is being sown as a result.

As was proved by the outrage that erupted just before its imposition, the bedroom tax is probably the single most glaring example. But the media tends to go a bundle on a story and then decide it has had enough – and in this case, the result has been a torrent of coverage in advance of the measure, and not nearly enough stuff about what is now actually happening.

The answer is straightforward enough: everything that was predicted, and more. Remember: the avowed aim of the policy – whereby housing benefit is docked by 14% a week for one “spare” room, and 25% for two or more – was to somehow push people out of “under-occupied” social housing, let in people from more cramped homes and thus pull off some miraculous national readjustment. But as anger mounted, even the Department for Work and Pensions seemed to accept that this was a vain hope. “Most people will not move,” said a less-than-explanatory statement from the DWP that arrived in my inbox.

And so it has proved, because the obstacles are as immovable as scores of people said. One- and two-bed flats in particular are impossible to come by and, in any case, people are understandably reluctant to leave behind the networks of family and friends. So, they are staying put, and suffering – as proved by a slow trickle of human stories, which have already included one suicide.

Councils and housing associations forecast huge increases in rent arrears, and the financial problems that would create, which is exactly what has come to pass. In Leeds, the city council has announced that it will reclassify rooms in 837 houses and attempt to avoid the worst – but 7,000 households have been hit, and 2,800 of them are now behind on their payments, so the council is already facing total arrears of £138,000. By the end of the financial year, those losses look set to easily top £1m, which will have profound consequences for the money that can be spent on maintenance and repairs – and, over time, the building of any new homes.

In Moss Side in Manchester, the Mosscare Housing Association reckons that 41% of its affected tenants are in arrears; in East Ayrshire, the council puts the figure at 75%. Moreover, the effects of the bedroom tax on some places are almost comically perverse. As the Holden family’s experience suggests, in some neighbourhoods, houses and streets are emptying out: the result is not a reduction in “under-occupancy”, but no occupancy at all.

Evidence recently released by the community network Locality and the Joseph Rowntree foundation certainly says as much. It quotes a woman from the Norris Green area of Liverpool, who says: “The social landlords would lease the houses to individual people on the basis that it was better to have the houses occupied than to have them empty … I walked just from my house to the bus stop and counted 11 houses tinned up because the social landlords can’t lease them, because of the under-occupancy.”

“Tinning up” is Liverpudlian slang for putting up metal screens on houses that have become empty. The woman goes on: “It’s madness. How can you say you’re saving money when you’re destroying a community?”

For housing associations in particular, all this sits in the middle of a mounting nightmare. Grants for the building of social housing have been slashed. Worse still, October sees the arrival of the grandest folly of all by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith: universal credit. Under the scheme, most working-age benefits will be folded into a single payment, and the portion that covers housing benefit will be paid directly to tenants, as opposed to councils and housing associations. As the government’s own pilot schemes have suggested, arrears are predicted to skyrocket once again.Down the coast from Holdens’ home in Hartlepool, the Coast and Country housing association sees to around 10,000 homes, spread across South Teesside. Its chief executive, Iain Sim, says he has been given £130,000 of the government money intended to assist people hit by the bedroom tax, and half of it has gone already. The policy’s effects, he says, will “get worse – it’s going to be cumulative”. He is already seeing tenants reduced to having £20 a week to spend on food, clothes and fuel bills. Given the local shortage of one-bedroom homes, he says it would take 37 years to rehouse the association’s “under-occupying” tenants into the one-bedroom flats that the government seems to assume exist. If they all simultaneously rented private flats, he reckons it would cost £500,000 a year in housing benefit – far, far more than what keeping them in places with supposed spare rooms entails. “None of this makes sense,” he says.

So, the government’s benefits policy is in a mess. Its housing policy is a fiasco, and it is making huge problems even worse. And one big question sits under this. In the event that 2015 sees a change of government, will this be at least one of the cuts that Labour might repeal?

On Friday, I spoke to someone high up in the party who I was told would know the answer. “The government should drop the bedroom tax now,” he told me. “But as with everything else, we’re not making spending commitments before 2015.” On one level, that’s a matter of inevitable realpolitik. But in Hartlepool, Redcar, Leeds, Manchester and beyond, it will doubtless look like yet another example of the coldness of modern politics – all despair, and no hope.

John Harris

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