Some things need nippng in the bud. So here’s a long and probably quite boring explanation of why Dave Hill’s recent claims in the Guardian that social cleansing is not taking place in London are a load of bollocks.
Hill based his recent piece on research carried out by the New Policy Institute think tank which examined the number of moves made by housing benefits claimants both within the capital and from London to other parts of the UK. It found that the number of London claimants who moved house has changed little between 2010 and 2015. As such the report’s authors conclude that housing benefit cuts have not caused the social cleansing of the city that many feared.
This led the Hill to declare that we should forget about social cleansing and instead focus on the poverty that has been caused by housing benefit cuts, saying that households had not been forced out of London but were staying put and making up rent shortfalls themselves. To some extent this is true, many Londoners are now living in desperate poverty due to soaring rents and benefit cuts. But to dismiss social cleansing, on the basis of this report, is a big mistake.
The first significant error in this research is that it examined all of those on housing benefit, not just those in the private sector. Almost 70% of London housing benefit claimants are in social housing and unlikely to be subject to the benefit cap due to much lower rents.* This means that large chunks of their data could be meaningless when analysing the impact of cuts on private sector tenants – and they don’t know which chunks.
There are many reasons why tenants might not move in such a brutal housing market. With the number of London landlords who will accept those claiming housing benefits growing ever smaller, the sensible thing to do if you have found somewhere is to stay put. Some social housing tenants may be hoping to buy eventually – especially now that right-to-buy is being extended to Housing Association properties. This could impact on the number of social housing transfers to outside the capital. These factors would both offset any exodus due to benefit cuts. But these assumptions, like the conclusions of the report, are speculation.
A further error in the research is that it treated claimants as one never-changing mass rather than examining flows on and off benefits. This means that if someone comes off housing benefits as a result of moving to a cheaper area they will not be included in the figures. The report fails to show whether the number of private sector Housing Benefit claimants is falling or rising in any given area. This leaves the question of whether people moving are being replaced by someone in similar economic circumstances. You would expect this if the number of poor people was not decreasing overall as the researchers claim and you can find out by looking at the Housing Benefit caseload statistics. They tell a very different story to the one told by the New Policy Institute.
The social cleansing of London did not begin when the Tory government first stole power in 2010. Gentrification had already hollowed out much of inner London with both rents and house prices soaring even in once largely working class areas such as Hackney and Lambeth. In more prosperous boroughs the eradication of the poor was almost complete except for those in social housing. There were just 7,790 private sector Housing Benefit claimants in the City of Westminster in 2010 – and Westminster is big, with a population almost as large as Hull and with areas which would not have been described even as middle class a couple of decades ago.
According to the most recent figures, the number of Housing Benefit claimants in Westminster now stands at 5,001, a drop of over a third since 2010. This trend is repeated throughout inner London – both the boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea and Islington have also lost around a third of private sector housing benefit claimants. In Camden, Hammersmith & Fulham and Southwark the number has dropped by around 20%, whilst Lewisham, Lambeth, Wandsworth and Tower Hamlets have all seen over 10% of private sector housing benefit claimants disappear. In the largely uninhabited City of London there were 100 private sector housing benefit claimants in 2010 and now there is only 20. The only inner London borough during the period to see a rise in this claimant group was Newham, by far the poorest and the least central borough. In total there are over 11,000 less private sector housing benefit claimants in inner London since 2010, and there weren’t many to start with. In many ways the Benefit Cap was simply a mopping up exercise, driving out the hangers-on that gentrification hadn’t yet managed to displace.
Despite plummeting number of private rented sector claimants in inner London the reverse is taking place further afield. Almost every outer London borough saw a rise in the number of private sector Housing Benefit claimants between 2010 and 2016, with only Waltham Forest, Merton and Richmond seeing a fall – and the last two are both posh. The main reason for this is soaring rents and a huge rise in the number of people in work who are claiming Housing Benefit. The overall number of Greater London Housing Benefit claimants, including social tenants, is higher now than in 2010 despite falling unemployment. The overall number of inner London claimants has fallen however.
The trend is plain to see. The richer and more central a borough is, then the more likely it will have seen a drop in the number of private sector housing benefit claimants. In outer boroughs the opposite is happening. London’s poor are being displaced to the margins
In some boroughs, such as Westminster, the process of social cleansing is near complete for almost all those without social housing. And for those clinging on the situation is chilling. Westminster spent around £3 million on Discretionary Housing Payments in 2014/15 specifically to mitigate the impact of the Benefit Cap. Assuming an average award of £50 a week – and this is a guess, there are no available figures – that’s enough to pay for over 1,000 of Westminster’s dwindling private sector claimants to remain in their homes. These are emergency payments, which can be withdrawn at any time, and will eventually stop. These households have simply been given a stay of execution.
In addition to this Westminster has 2,435 households who are homeless and in temporary accommodation. Around half of this number have been relocated outside the borough. Those still in Westminster will be in some form of private accomodation, whether that’s a hostel, B&B or in a temporary placement with a private landlord. They are also likely to be claiming Housing Benefit. So of Westminster’s 5000 private sector Housng Benefit claimants up to a quarter could be homeless, and possibly another fifth are receiving Discretionary Housing Payments which will eventually be stopped.
The Benefit Cap is just one, very small part of what is driving social cleansing. London’s failure to build enough social housing is also displacing the poor from the capital. Despite a population increase across Greater London of almost half a million between 2010 and 2014, the number of new social houses was just 7,455. Housing stock estimates from the Department of Communities and Local Government show that Islington, Camden, Kensington & Chelsea, Wesminster and the City of London have all seen a reduction in the number of socially rented homes since 2010. As numerous campaigners around the capital will tell you, they are now coming for the housing estates as well.
It seems astonishing that there would be those who refute that London’s poor are being gradually forced out of the city when the evidence is so visible. Take a walk round Hackney and you will see streets that have been not just socially, but also ethnically cleansed. This is not to undermine the sufffering of those still living in the capital who have been forced into poverty and destitution. That is part of social cleansing too, as the poor are sliced out of civic, economic and social life, even if they manage to cling onto their homes. Those that are left become as invisible as the departed. With further benefit cuts on the way and the near eradication of social housing it is irresponsible, and just plain inaccurate to deny what is taking place.
*this post was corrected on 28/5/16 due to previously saying social housing tenants are exempt from the Benefit Cap. This was a daft mistake, they are not exempt, but due to much lower rents in social housing then very few claimants are affected. H/T @nearlylegal who pointed it out.
Above pic from Turbulent London
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