From mansion block to mews

11th February 2017


The Conservative attack on the social fabric of society in the UK, which has gone on for over thirty years, is finally bringing home the realisation that some action is required to halt the decline. Unfortunately, what is on offer may be little more than a sticking plaster to address a gaping wound. Local authorities are being allowed to add 3% to Council tax bills in order to address insufficient funding for social care provision.   A new housing White Paper sets out plans for more housebuilding in order to boost the rental market. The apprenticeship levy, which kicks in from April, will see all employers with a wage bill of £3m or more paying in to a central pot for the training of young people.

On the face of it these all appear to be positive initiatives against which it is difficult to argue. In reality they are all attempted short terms fixes for the social crisis which capitalism has been nurturing for nearly half a century.

The emphasis in relation to housing, on more homes to rent for young people is, in effect, a recognition that the Tory ‘right to buy’ policy, initiated in the 1980’s, has been an abject failure. The success of post war council house building had been to move millions out of squalid property, managed by unscrupulous landlords, and into homes built to decent standards managed by local authorities. The so-called right to buy, couched in terms of the UK being a property owning democracy, was little more than a scramble by speculators to asset strip council stock and undermine the infrastructure for social housing in the UK.

The solution proposed in the current White Paper however may well contain the seeds of its own destruction. The paper argues that greater use should be made of ‘brownfield’ sites and that in urban areas more high density schemes should get the go ahead, stating,

“When people picture high density housing, they tend to think of unattractive tower blocks, but some of the most desirable places to live in the capital are in areas of higher density mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets.”

Like the blocks they envisage building, with relaxed regulation on height restrictions in urban areas, the government clearly has its head in the clouds. The occasional mansion block or mews, housing high salary earning single professionals, with a view of Tate Modern and barges on the Thames, may be a lovely daydream for Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid (pictured), but it is not the reality for most of the poor and struggling in London, never mind the rest of the country.

High density housing, combined with high density low pay and unemployment, is simply a recipe for high density social unrest.

The apprenticeship levy to the rescue then? Young people getting a training which will allow them to get a foot on the employment ladder and claw their way from the high density poverty of 1960’s brutalist housing and into the 21st century version? Perhaps. The levy is aimed at raising £3 billion from employers in order to fund 3 million high quality apprenticeships by 2020.

However, for large public sector employers, struggling under central government cuts, the levy may effectively operate as another tax burden. With 0.5% of the payroll cost being diverted into the levy many public sector bodies, struggling to meet existing pay bills, will have to divert a proportion of their funds into the scheme. While they may get some of this back, in the form of young people as apprentices, there is no guarantee of proportionality.

In effect, large public sector employers could end up subsidising private sector apprenticeships.

Finally, the government allowing local councils to increase council tax bills by 3%, to cover cuts in social care, shows a comprehensive lack of understanding of the extent to which local government services have been decimated. For most local authorities the 3% increase will barely cover the additional costs of the living wage increase, which private care providers are looking to pass onto local councils as part of their contract arrangements.

The crisis in social care of course feeds back in to the crisis in the NHS, as beds remain occupied due to the lack of provision in the community for older people. Properly resourced and funded local government services are part of the answer to these problems. In spite of the rhetoric however, centralisation has been the hallmark of all governments since the 1980’s. If that is the case then central government needs to come up with a strategic plan to address the crumbling social fabric of the UK.

Supporting a few well paid bankers, in the few well resourced mansion blocks and mews’ of the capital, will not be enough.


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