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Monday 1 November 2010
Letters: Landlords and housing benefit
Benefit boom for landlords
It was Labour government policy to encourage everyone with spare cash to enter the “buy-to-let” market and become an amateur landlord.
This resulted in an inevitable pushing up of property prices throughout the United Kingdom, creating a property “boom” market that was only sustainable because desperate first-time buyers were offered mortgages of 125 per cent upwards on a property’s value.
Prices continued an upward surge for a decade, creating what is now accepted as a “housing crisis” that has made property unaffordable and left millions of home owners and potential home owners unable to buy, unable to sell and unable to move home.
In the meantime, private rents were rising in line with “market value” and it was public money that met the cost as more and more tenants became unable to meet their housing expenses.
Most private rented accommodation is “assured shorthold tenancy”, a contractual arrangement that gives the landlord the power to recover possession of the property at the end of a fixed period of tenancy, usually no longer than six months. The landlord can increase the rent if the tenant wants to extend the agreement; the tenant has no choice other than to apply for an increase to their housing benefit. This public money goes straight into the pockets of the private landlords and does not benefit the tenants other than providing a stay against homelessness.
The stark fact is that housing benefit has been out of control for years and this is commensurate with the rise in property prices across the UK which has made it almost impossible for anyone on an average income to find decent affordable property to buy or rent throughout much of the UK.
I am perplexed by the one sidedness of the attacks on the proposal to cap housing benefit. Those criticising the proposed cap seem to assume that the rents being charged are inflexible, whereas, of course, the whole rental market is sustained by the £20bn being pumped into that market by housing benefit.
Might it not in fact be the case that the cost of rent is being kept artificially high by the high level of government support of the system, and that a realignment of rental rates is long overdue? In the circumstances, the suggested cap seems a rather modest proposal.
There is no need for people to lose their accommodation as a result of housing benefit being reduced. Rent control is a fair way of ensuring that.
Many people, myself included, who are lucky enough to have a spare house to let, set the rent at whatever the housing benefit is. There’s no reason to charge any more. Until recently I had imagined that everybody did the same.
Last Friday I was in our local supermarket, to spend two pounds on the Euro Lottery, hoping that I might get a winner to supplement our pensions. There I spotted three fellows whose names I never knew, but whom I occasionally met in the “local” during my working days. They had each just bought 200 packs of cigarettes.
I caught up with them, each with his trolley loaded with cartons of beer and lager. I asked if they were having a party. They pointed out they were going to their flat for a Halloween do on Saturday.
“Things are looking up,” I laughed. Then I got an invitation to join them, which I had to refuse. They egged me on and boasted: “We are not paying for this, it is all from our benefits, which we have pooled together over the past few weeks.”
I remember them as being on the dole, but they said the system has changed and they were taken off the dole, but moved to other benefits systems, giving them more money and paying their rent. I hope they enjoyed their party – at our expense.
Bridlington, East Yorkshire
Bus services in danger
Andy Connell (letter, 26 October) is not quite right about the income stream for bus companies. For every £1 I now save on bus fares the bus company is only compensated between 30p and 70p. Many services are being withdrawn and in some case fares are put up for paying passengers to offset the losses on pensioners.
Bus companies make typical profits for normal companies, but politicians, especially here in West Yorkshire, are foolishly convinced they are raking in enormous profits. In fact bus companies are being squeezed hard, with more regulations, a reduction in fuel duty rebate and inadequate compensation for free travel.
I am lucky to live in an urban area with good bus services, but in much of England there may soon be no buses on which pensioners could use their passes. Next summer, for instance, people without cars will be excluded from many National Parks because of bus cuts.
In most of Britain, buses are the only tool we have for cutting congestion and transport carbon emissions, and we can see by their policies that most politicians are completely insincere when they speak about either of these problems.
All the positive things about bus passes will count for nothing if the buses are withdrawn and the staff made redundant.
Shipley, West Yorkshire
Some correspondents have suggested that bus passes are mainly used by those without cars. In my area, buses during the daytime are well used by car-owning pensioners such as myself, for whom the choice between a free bus trip and forking out for petrol and parking is a very easy one to make.
Travelling to the city centre by bus is, as they say these days, a “no-brainer”, and owners of shops and cafes in the city are grateful for the extra business and for the cash coming their way that would have been spent on bus fares or petrol.
Everyone wins with bus passes: passengers, bus companies, shopkeepers, motorists who find the roads a little quieter and who find more parking spaces available, residents who enjoy a slightly cleaner atmosphere, council taxpayers who benefit from more revenue coming into the city.
Maybe there is an argument for extending the scope of free or cheap bus travel.
Provocation or debate?
Julie Burchill’s column “Poor Lauren Booth – she would do anything to get in with the tough kids” (27 October) provokes two debates, one real and one illusory.
The latter is the debate about whether what she said is problematic or not. Just to go through the motions, the answer is, of course, “yes”’. She ignores all the diversity of opinion and contexts within Islamic thought (both now and historically), dismissing its adherents as bullying “tough kids” who uniformly enact “the oppression, torment and murder of thousands of Christians, homosexuals and spirited women, worldwide, every year”.
But this is all an illusory and manufactured debate. Anyone can make chronically over-simplistic “telling it like it is” statements about large collectives (affiliates of world religions, citizens of countries, members of either sex) and produce outrage. But it is not especially meaningful.
The more substantial debate provoked by Julie Burchill’s column is about the very nature of debate itself in a paper like The Independent. Meaningful debate involves people who may well genuinely disagree, but are decently informed and aware that the world is complicated. The mixture of sweeping statements and personal insults served up in Julie Burchill’s column does not constitute this.
Bombs: too much information
Why do our security organisations seem to be assisting the operations of terrorists?
In the interests of keeping the public informed about the Yemen bomb plot, we appear to have not only told the perpetrators which devices were intercepted (they might have sent more than two), precisely where they were discovered (revealing how far they progressed on their journey) and that intelligence sharing, rather than monitoring devices or security checks, prompted their detection (helping with the management of the terrorist activities).
All of this freely provided information will be very interesting for the terrorists; it seems to me that we all too often place too much importance on keeping the public informed, in unnecessarily minute detail, revealing too much about our methods of combating terrorism.
I have to wonder about the common-sense aspect of the latest bomb packages getting on planes in the first place.
The country of origin, Yemen, does not have a large electric or electronic manufacturing industry with a large export business, so any packets containing wires or electronics might well be considered suspect, and surely easy to detect initially.
Consider next the actual contents of the bomb packages: printer cartridges. Such devices are made in the Far East, and they are cheap in the shops over here and even more so in the USA. Who then would want to spend the money air freighting a lowcost, previously imported item from Yemen to the USA? The cost of the freight and handling would surely be more than the price in the USA.
Am I missing something here, or are the air freight authorities?
Dave Simms Davies,
Badger shooting can be humane
The RSPCA cites our report to Defra on the viability of shooting as a tool in badger population control (“Badger shooting is cruel, says RSPCA”, 29 October), but ignores its conclusions.
As stated, the report, points out that badgers differ anatomically from other species commonly controlled by shooting, such as deer and foxes. However, after reviewing data on sighting frequencies and range, and on ballistics, we saw no reason that appropriately trained operators would not attain the same levels of humaneness as are typical in deer or fox control.
Compared with cage-trapping, we concluded that shooting would also be an efficient way to reduce badger densities.
We did however advise that this was a task for specialists, and that if badger control was deemed necessary, it would be advisable to explore shooting on a small scale with monitoring of humaneness, before committing to wider-scale implementation. This would give the reassurance for which the RSPCA evidently feels a need.
Dr Jonathan Reynolds,
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust,
An example to us all
In reply to Howard Jacobson (30 October), may I say that, as a woman in her sixties, I am delighted that Ann Widdecombe is taking part in Strictly Come Dancing.
I resemble Anne in appearance in that I am short and dumpy and certainly look my age. I would not be able to get over my shame and guilt at not being as glamorous and “bendy” as Felicity Kendal or as strong, supple and sexy as Pamela Stephenson, both sexagenarians, if it were not for Ann reminding us that women come in all shapes and sizes and we need not avert our gaze from the less-than-perfect examples of ageing womanhood.
Not good enough
Roger Morgan (letter, 30 October) points out that governments have encouraged parents to interpret terms such as “satisfactory” and “outstanding” in Ofsted reports as meaning “barely scraping by” and “OK”. He suggests it should be explained to ministers that not everything can be above average. But how can the general public possibly be expected to understand this when half of them are of below average intelligence?
A place to live
How to curb our tendency to view our houses “as cash machines and pension plans rather than places to live” (leading article, 28 October)? Easy – abolish the exemption from capital gains tax on sales of one’s sole or principal residence.
Perspectives on wind power
Remaking the landscape again
Yes, Michael McCarthy (cover story, 28 October), I would put a wind farm next to Stonehenge. A long row of elegant turbines marching across Salisbury Plain would be one of the better contributions our industrialised society could make to the landscape. Better surely than the A303, the visitor centre, the camper-van invasions, intensive agriculture, or the tank and artillery firing ranges that currently surround this ancient monument.
McCarthy and Terence Blacker (Viewspaper, 29 October) wish to defend an “inviolate sense of solitude”, claiming that windfarms “desecrate the landscape” or “blight the lives of those who live near them”. Blacker even suggests that partly wooded farmland and the East Anglian sky would somehow be lost.
I could ask, whose solitude, whose landscape? The countryside we see today is totally manufactured. Changing patterns of ownership and the industrialisation of agriculture have have taken us a long way from our ancestors' world of continuous forest with a few clearings.
No, poor people, you may not walk to the edge of your village and coppice the local woods for fuel and building materials. Nor may you graze your pigs in the woods or your cattle on the fallow fields. You cannot clear a patch of forest, build a small house, and make a living from charcoal burning. But console yourself, you can go and live near the dark satanic mills in the hope of a job, and the middle classes can feel some solitude as they walk along the few remaining rights-of-way around your old homes.
Fossil-fuel power stations have desecrated and blighted far more than windfarms ever could, as well as bringing us acid rain and global warming. I cannot understand how your contributors can argue against windfarms. Actually I can. They would campaign just as loudly against a gas-fired station in their local valley. And how about a totally safe above-ground nuclear waste storage facility next to the local primary school?
Targets are out of reach already
Your lead story on 28 October points up the certainty that the government targets on renewable energy cannot be met. The regional differences between onshore wind capacities are already immense, very much a reflection of the planning issues you highlight.
South-west Scotland, with only 5 per cent of the UK’s land area, has 27 per cent of the UK’s approved wind farms. Southwest England on the other hand, with twice as much land and better wind resources, has only 1 per cent.
The major factor needed to maximise the efficiency of wind-generated electricity is as wide a geographical spread of wind power sites as possible. This is simply not happening, and will increasingly limit the amount of wind energy that can effectively be integrated into the grid.
Ifwe stagger on as we are now we will be lucky to reach the 5 per cent level for the wind’s contribution by 2020. We are currently at 2.5 per cent. Witha much wider approach, including for the first time some emphasis on energy storage, we may be able to get nearer 8 per cent out of wind. Thoughts of very much more are cloud-cuckoo land – no matter how many wind turbines you erect.
Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Local people see through experts
Three years ago I was chairman of North Somerset Council’s planning committee. I was invited to a Civil Service training seminar on how to assess applications for wind farms, held in Taunton.
We were shown a film which included the Boscastle floods as an example of the impact of global warming. Several of us wanted to know whether those floods were different from the Lynmouth floods of 50 years earlier. The experts had never heard of the earlier floods.
We were given an exercise involving five 400ft turbines, taller than Salisbury Cathedral spire, to be built within sight of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. When their impact on the landscape was raised, we were told to put a hedge around the turbine. A 400ft high hedge perhaps?
These applications are being refused because local councillors now know the experts are talking rubbish.
Portishead, North Somerset
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