British housing reforms spark social concerns in London

3rd November 2010, Comments 0 comments

The British government's deep housing benefit cuts have sparked concern that London's poorest citizens may be forced to live on the outskirts of the capital, as they are priced out of central areas.

Finance Minister George Osborne launched plans last month to overhaul housing benefit payments as part of a comprehensive spending review that sought to slash a huge public deficit.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition administration will cap maximum payments for housing benefit at 250 pounds (290 euros, 400 dollars) per week for a one-bedroom home, and 400 pounds per week for a four-bedroom house.

The new upper limits, which will apply from April 2011, are equivalent to about 13,000 pounds or 21,000 pounds per year respectively.

"The perception of many of the government's opponents is that this (policy) will push the poor out of inner London... and into outer London, which will create greater concentrations of poor people," said political expert Tony Travers at the London School of Economics.

"The opposition is very profound and there is a struggle going on which has not finally been resolved yet," he told AFP.

Housing benefit, which is aimed at supporting low-income households, is paid towards rent but not mortgage payments.

The coalition argues that the housing benefit bill has rocketed by 50 percent over the past decade to a colossal 21 billion pounds.

"The government has proposed fairly radical changes to the system of housing subsidy, which have a particular impact in London where housing is extremely expensive," added Travers.

"The government ends up paying a subsidy to poor people to live in the city.

"That has the effect of holding a significantly larger number of poor people in inner London than you might normally see in, say, Paris."

In addition, the long-term unemployed will receive a 10-percent cut in their housing benefit under the new British plans.

"The government is changing the rules to reduce the level of subsidy and that is going to have an effect potentially of forcing such poor families to move out of the city centre," added Travers.

"The term Parisification has been used -- the idea that somehow the poor would be expelled from the central part and pushed into the suburbs, into the banlieue.

"We will have to wait and see how this works through, but it is a very controversial policy for sure."

London Mayor Boris Johnson exposed those fears last week when he declared that he was firmly opposed to "Kosovo-style social cleansing" and insisted he would not allow families pushed out to the periphery.

"The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris, where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs," the Mayor told the BBC.

"I'll emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London where the rich and poor cannot live together."

The Conservative mayor added: "What we will not see and we will not accept is any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London.

"On my watch, you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots.

"That is not what Londoners want to see, it's not what we are going to accept."

Johnson's comments sparked criticism from British Prime Minister and Conservative leader David Cameron, prompting an immediate climbdown.

The mayor apologised, adding that his quotes were taken "out of context" and that housing benefit reform was "absolutely right."

Chris Bryant, shadow justice minister for the opposition Labour party, argued that the coalition was "sociologically cleansing" the city, saying that 200,000 people could be driven out of inner city areas with high rents.

But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, responded: "To refer to cleansing would be deeply offensive to people who have witnessed ethnic cleansing in other parts of the world."

According to official estimates, around 21,000 homes will be affected by the housing benefit caps, and about 17,000 of those households will be in London.

© 2010 AFP

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