As the pieces of the jigsaw of the Coalition’s attack on social housing fall inexorably into place, it’s hard not to be tempted into thinking that it must be a part of a deliberate strategy to create a modern-day lumpen-proletariat. As Oscar Wilde famously observed, to lose one parent might be considered a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. I am tempted to add that to lose several cousins as well looks like criminal negligence. Thus to cut capital spending on investment in social housing might just be considered an unfortunate but necessary austerity measure. To do so at the same time as removing aspects of housing benefit, at the same time as attacking security of tenure, at the same time as capping benefits in general, and at the same time as thereby undermining the future income streams upon which social housing providers depend to meet their borrowing: to do all these things simultaneously, and at the self-same moment as unemployment in public and private sectors is set to rise by perhaps 1,000,000 or more because of general fiscal tightening thus hugely increasing social housing demand – well that does seem more than simply ham-fisted.
But worrying about motivation is ultimately pointless and unnecessary. I’m not in the business of raking through the souls of Messrs Cameron, Osborne, Duncan-Smith and the rest. I don’t care whether they are deliberately wicked or merely criminally irresponsible. The issue lies in what the outcome will be. And I think that now there is a very real risk that the outcome will be social dislocation and fracture on the biggest scale we have known in the last 70 years. Even Thatcherism at its height did not carry the same risks: the dislocation then was targeted at specific groups – most notably the miners. But this government’s ambitions, if that’s what they are, seem wider and more pervasive.
One of Thatcher’s flagship policies was right-to-buy. It was hugely controversial at the time, and it has indeed had some very deleterious consequences for affordable housing supply. But it did have one more benign effect, and an effect that the last government tried hard to build on and develop. Often derided by the right, John Prescott’s “sustainable communities” concept was an extension of what right-to-buy had, possibly unintentionally, begun. Mixed tenure developments, with social rented, intermediate rented, market rented, shared ownership, and private freeholders have a greater chance of long-term success. Communities in which only poor people live, in which only those with multiple problems live, in which better-off people never live or even set foot – such communities will fail as surely as night follows day. Cameron’s attack on security of tenure will – if it works which I doubt – denude poor communities of their most successful members.
And this is a kind of apartheid. Not for Britain the crudities of racial apartheid, pass laws, and the paraphernalia of separate development imposed by law. No, we prefer separate development imposed by economic necessity. An apartheid which is self-sustaining, in which poor people almost disappear from the consciousness of the majority. We don’t need to go there, physically, emotionally, or morally. Until, that is, our breakfast marmalade is rudely interrupted by news that we have created our very own banlieues, and that cars are burning in those places we’d wiped from our collective attention.