Christina Patterson: Don't blame Newham when rents are sky high

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The Independent Online

In his first Budget, George Osborne said he would "introduce maximum limits on housing benefit", of "£400 a week". No family, he said, at the Tory party conference, "should get more from living on benefits than the average family gets from going out to work".

The "average family" that works, though it's usually just the parents, earns about £26,000 a year. The new cap on housing benefits is £21,000 a year. That's quite a lot of money just to pay on rent, but in London it often isn't enough. In London, you don't have to live in a mansion in Chelsea to rack up well over £21,000. In London, you can rack up well over that even if you live in its poorest boroughs, and particularly if you're an immigrant and, like a lot of immigrants, have a very big family.

So perhaps it's not surprising that some London boroughs have been trying to find cheaper accommodation for their tenants elsewhere. Newham Council, for example, has written to 1,200 housing organisations, asking if they can help. It says the gap between market rents and the local housing allowance has become too big. It says it has been "forced to look farther afield for alternative supply". One of the organisations it has approached, called Brighter Futures, is in Stoke-on-Trent. But Brighter Futures seems to think that 500 families on housing benefit from London isn't the kind of brighter future it wants.

Is this "social cleansing"? Brighter Futures says it is, and so does Boris Johnson. If "social cleansing" means that poor people can't always afford to live in expensive places, then it is. Clearly, it would be much better if governments built more affordable housing and if private rents went down. But a government's control over the private rental market is limited, and mass building programmes take time. In the meantime, there's a housing benefit bill that's £21bn a year, and still going up.

Is it fair that some people who've lived in an area for quite a while may have to move? It seems tough. Is it fair that some people can have as many children as they like, and live where they like, and have their very high rent paid by people who can't afford to do either? It doesn't really seem to be. That, presumably, is why, in a recent poll, 76 per cent of the public said they were in favour of the benefit cap, and 69 per cent of Labour voters.

Labour has said it's also in favour of a benefit cap, but it hasn't said what this should be. It seems to think you can please the "hard-working families" who pay the £21bn housing benefits bill, and all the families whose rent it pays. It's a hard, but inescapable truth, which David Cameron, for all his "omnishambles", seems to have grasped, that you can't.

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