Joan Smith: When is a house not a home? When it's a council house

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The Independent Online

We know how strongly the Conservative Party feels about where people live. Home is very important to Tory politicians, so much so that their ambition is to lift the inheritance tax threshold so that families can more easily stay there. The proposal delighted Middle England when it was announced in 2007, and it's only the annoying circumstance of a financial crisis that's persuaded the present government to postpone it. Clearly it's unfair for families to be faced with selling much-loved homes after 20 years or more just to pay death duties. Stable communities where people know their neighbours and support each other are central to the Big Society.

Scrub all that when it comes to social housing. Local authority tenants need to understand that they don't have homes but temporary accommodation, apportioned to their exact needs, and if they want more flexibility they must join the ranks of owner-occupiers. From next year, council tenants who claim benefits will face financial restrictions similar to those in private rented accommodation; if changes in their circumstances mean that they have too much room, their housing benefit will be cut to persuade them to face reality.

Here's the policy, from the impact assessment published last week alongside the Government's Welfare Bill: "Where claimants are currently living in accommodation which is considered too large for their needs, the housing benefit restriction will provide an incentive to move to more suitably sized accommodation." An "incentive" sounds attractive but what it means in this instance is being threatened with eviction. Of course elderly Mr Patel or 84-year-old Mrs O'Grady will be perfectly free to stay where they are if they choose to make up the shortfall in rent from their own resources; the Government isn't heartless, you know. And local authorities could cut rents, just as ministers challenged landlords to do when they announced similar proposals for the private rented sector.

Up to 700,000 people may have to leave their homes – sorry, temporary accommodation – when the measures come into force. Under the new rules, a separate bedroom is required only for each cohabiting couple and for adults over 21, so a family with two teenage daughters would be regarded as "under-occupying" a three-bedroom council house. So would an elderly woman who has been sharing a two-bedroom flat with her sister, as soon as the latter dies. It's not clear where the thousands of newly homeless will go, given that there's a national shortage of 240,000 one-bedroom properties, but that's a detail. So, apparently, is being forced to move to an unfamiliar new area.

I grew up in council houses which I regarded as home. My parents wallpapered and gardened, in the belief that we had more than a passing connection with the property. I now see the error of my ways, and the self-indulgence of my parents in choosing to live in the old Rothschild mansion in Gunnersbury Park, west London. My dad was offered a flat there because he was a council gardener. But that doesn't excuse my family having ideas above its station.

You can rely on Tory ministers and their middle-class Lib Dem chums to keep the unruly masses in their place. There is a difference between Judy O'Grady and the Colonel's Lady: only the latter is entitled to more bedrooms than she strictly needs.;