Monday, 12 March 2012

The Fear of a Split Society: The Threat of Decentralization for Council Housing

When H.G. Wells wrote the notorious 1895 novel ‘The Time Machine’, he envisioned a society much like the future being offered to us by new Coalition policies. A world strictly segregated by class, the privileged but helpless Eloi live in a self-constructed paradise, maintained but over-shadowed by a dark under-belly of Morlock creatures, whose position on the social periphery threatens to overthrow the comfortable existence of those above ground. With the current spread of middle-class identity, where 70% of us associate ourselves with typically bourgeois values, it can be hard to see how this socialist metaphor for the Victorian, industrial divide has any relevance to modern society. Yet, with current drives by the Coalition to ‘remove red tape’ and de-centralise decision-making powers, allowing local councils to make vital choices about the amount of new housing developments to fund (which have the potential to help some of the 48,000 households in London currently living in temporary accommodation), this striking metaphor begins to take shape. Whereas previous government legislation would allocate how many new housing developments each local council should strive for, local areas will now be able to make their own decisions about how much, or (more worryingly) how little, social housing they will create.
            Most of us, generally speaking, have some level of care and consideration towards the poor. Unless we take the form of Dickens’ Mr Bounderby, whose self-proclaimed success in climbing the social ladder causes him to tread callously on the fingers of those beneath him, we would generally like those suffering from the effects of poverty to be alleviated of their hardship. That is, ideologically speaking. We like the idea of them being helped…we’d just rather they were helped a little further away from us. A bail hostel? Wonderful! Next door? God, no. The principal is the same for council housing, we want it to exist, we want it to be habitable but we want it very definitely elsewhere. The average person living in a three bedroom house will often have perfectly good reasons for not wanting housing developments emerging down their road. There’s the environment to think of (even though their family owns two or three cars), there’s the roads which are busy enough (even though they contribute to that busyness by driving their two or three cars) and there’s the possible effect on their own house price (a concern serious enough not to casually ironise). The virtue of the previous, centralised policy (Stalinist though it may appear to Richard Littlejohn whom, you suspect, would see a government memo as evidence of bureaucratic, Trotskyite Eng-Soc) was that it took the nasty strain of disingenuous self-interest out of the equation. The threat of that housing development being established down your road is nothing compared to the threat of not building new housing. If local councils in privileged areas make their domain inaccessible to anyone with a combined income below £60,000, you begin to see the effects of ghettoisation. Poorer families, living in areas with less housing options and harsher rules of eligibility, will be driven towards ‘softer’ areas, meaning that you create pockets of poverty. Much of London could become unaffordable (which, of course, is where most employment can be found), forcing families to relocate into areas which offer little chance of finding work or poses the added cost of a long commute into the city. Local elections will be campaigned differently with candidates able to legitimately promise to wealthy constituents that they will not sully the precious streets of Kensington/Chelsea with council tenants. The new policy establishes a trend towards polarisation; it condenses crime and other social problems into these pockets, thereby making it harder to tackle. By opposing integration you are, essentially, writing-off whole sections of society.
We regress into a backwards hierarchy, where opportunity and lifestyle are awarded only to those who already possess it; social mobility becomes a faded dream. Of course, according to Wells, in two thousand years, those banished to Southall will have speciated and evolved into a race of mutant monsters who feed off the pathetic, degenerate softies that used to be in charge. I’m not saying that’s going to happen. Although, if it does, I personally volunteer Richard Littlejohn for their first meal.

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