Mary Dejevsky: We're blind to our British 'banlieues'

Click to follow

It was nearing dusk in a benighted small town in the south of France (yes, they have them there, too), and I wished my education had included instruction in taking and driving away. There were all these cars, just standing there, parked, yet I could not get out. There was a vandalised bus shelter – no buses on Sundays, precious few the rest of the time; a ruined public phone, and not an advert for a taxi or mini-cab in sight. There was no choice but to brave the leering men and the smoke in the bar/tabac to ask how to get back to Marseille (half an hour's drive away). The barman called someone, who called someone else's brother, who called someone else, who eventually turned up in a taxi and transported me for a fat fee to the airport, from where I took the metro.

I have visited many grim towns and banlieues like these, and one feature they had in common was the difficulty of getting to and from them on public transport. If there was a bus or train, it was at the wrong time of day to get to college or work and back. Whole deprived populations were isolated – "excluded" in the buzzword of the Chirac presidency – and mostly they remain so.

This hidden "other side" of France is often held up by British campaigners, when someone dares suggest that people might be encouraged to move to find work – as Iain Duncan Smith has just done. Or when it is proposed, as one north London council recently did, that having a job might be treated as a plus, rather than a minus, for those applying for council accommodation. I have argued both in the past, only to be told in affronted tones that the result would be ghettos of the workless and islands peopled by les exclus.

To which I would respond: is the present situation here so very different? Even in this city that never sleeps, where new arrivals seem to get a job when they are barely off the train, there are vast estates occupied by people who not only make scant contribution to the above-ground economy, but rarely venture beyond the bounds of their postcode. The line between these estates and areas where the majority have jobs might be invisible, but it is as impervious as the most fortified national frontier.

And one reason – not the only one, I grant; education also bears a big responsibility – is the disincentive that exists for those in council housing to improve their situation by working. IDS is not wrong about this. Moving, even to find work, means losing one of the most valuable benefits Britain's social state has to offer: cheap housing with lifetime tenure. Eight out of 10 tenants have been in their home more than 10 years; almost no one can afford to move out.

The generosity – yes, I mean that – of housing benefit adds another distortion. The Chancellor's move to cap this was met with indignation from lobbyists, forecasting evictions and families on the street or forced to find cheaper or smaller premises. But I am amazed the Government did not make more of the sums someone has to earn to compensate for housing benefit, even at its capped levels. Perhaps George Osborne had been warned that a millionaire frontbench could look heartless. To replace even the new maximum-allowable rent of £400 a week for a family house and afford to live, you would need a pre-tax income of around £50,000 a year, around twice the average pay. It's not unreasonable and it's not inhumane to expect benefit claimants to weigh the size, location, running costs etc of their accommodation against incomings. That's not unreasonable and it's not inhumane; it's real life as every tax-payer has to live it...

A win at diplomacy, too

Disappointingly, work obligations meant that I could not join the throng invited to watch the England-Germany match at the residence of the German ambassador. But if Germany gave England a lesson in playing football on Sunday afternoon, the ambassador, Georg Boomgaarden, gave his fellow-diplomats a lesson in the art of subtle national projection, more fashionably called "soft power".

Before the match, Herr Boomgaarden posed cheerfully outside his Belgravia pile, sporting a Deutschland T-shirt, while repeating – in exemplary English – words to the effect of "may the better side win". When the better side did win, rather decisively, Herr Boomgaarden kept himself discreetly out of the limelight.

It turns out that England-Germany was not a one-off for the country's London-based diplomats. They and their Serbian colleagues held a joint screening for their first-round match, and they were in hospitality mode for Germany-Ghana, too. It could be said that the World Cup is bringing some of the best out of the diplomatic community. When England beat Slovenia, the Slovene ambassador popped up outside his embassy on the television news to offer his congratulations. Ah, those were the days...

Fake finishing touch

There's a television advert that's seriously annoying me. It's Jamie Oliver completing some dish or other, then reaching out to top it off with an enormous sprig of rosemary. It's not the dish that's the problem; I can't even remember what it is. It's the rosemary. The giant sprig makes it, visually, and – I assume – gastronomically. But how many of us have a rosemary bush conveniently to hand? If anything, it's far more likely to be the herb-jar.

This is the same kind of fantasy that informs those "cheap chic" fashion features, where everything comes from Primark, H&M or the Oxfam shop, except the single belt, bag or scarf that actually makes the outfit – which comes in at a cool £200. That's luxury masquerading as tat – which it's not; it's cheating of a rather cynical kind.