Mrs May once famously said that the Tories are the nasty party. She has proved to be a serial liar in almost everything she has said since, but there she spoke truth. I was a county councillor through the thick of the Osborne austerity programme, when support for local government was being cut in an arithmetical series: 2008, cuts of £1,000,000,000; 2009, cuts of £2,000,000,000; 2010, cuts of £3,000,000,000 etc etc. During my tenure the cuts equalled £30,000,000,000.
By 2018 the total cuts (if my A level maths has not deserted me) were £55,000,000,000. Now admittedly in today’s debased currency that’s hardly enough to bribe an EU functionary, but in the real world it lead to cuts in things that really mattered, cuts to road maintenance, cuts to policing, fire services, libraries, respite support for families. Nasty indeed.
Many of their other proposed money-saving policies were simply heartless. One such was the bedroom tax”
“The under-occupancy penalty (also known as the under occupation penalty, under-occupancy charge, under-occupation charge or size criteria) is a reform contained in the British Welfare Reform Act 2012 whereby public-housing (also called council or social housing) tenants with rooms deemed to be “spare” face a reduction in Housing Benefit, resulting in them being obliged to fund this reduction from their incomes or face rent arrears and potential eviction by their landlord (be that the local authority or a housing association).” Wikipedia
Let’s look at this policy with a non-Osborne eye. Young Mum and Dad move into a reasonably-sized house for their family with three or four children. Before you know it the children grow up, move away, come back, off to jobs, return with grandchildren for visits… The house is a bit shabby now, overlain with memories of lives lived together, with a dense patina of love and affection and the passing years. It’s not a house, not a social housing unit. It’s a home. Young Mum and Dad have turned a little grey and have become Grandpops and Nan, on benefits now since many local jobs have been off-shored, managing but only just as they wait for their old age pension.
Along comes one of the desiccated calculating machines that passes for a politician in the Nasty Party and it looks at the occupancy unit with a political eye. It sees not a home, not a place redolent with love and memories: all it sees is the chance to save money. Inexplicably the individual cost items living within resist the instruction to downsize in order to free the habitation for more efficient usage. They seem curiously reluctant to submit to redeployment in the name of efficiency, refusing to move out and leave all that history, all that love behind.
This, the argument runs, is State property and these old people are merely State dependants who must do what they are told. And if they don’t then they must learn their place. So the State must tax the rooms they have spare (or cut their benefits which amounts to the same thing), must make them suffer until they comply.
Look again at that policy with a non-political eye. It stinks.
Let me digress for a moment. One of the encounters in the Suffolk County Council Chamber which will remain with me forever was when I was triggered by some heartless policy or other – probably library cuts but it may have been their refusal to release land for social housing – and really lost it. Furiously I pointed at the majority side of the chamber, where the Conservative group with their absolute control sat smug and indifferent as our minor group tried to ameliorate the policies being passed down from Osborne’s cold-hearted Treasury, pointed and ranted “It’s not that you don’t understand, you don’t care!” Cue lots of boos and hisses, cue a little, just a little, sheepish shuffling of feet.
Being a politician should be about caring. Yes, understanding too, spending taxpayers’ money wisely, but caring must be up there on the list of priorities, part of the balancing act. These are, or should be, primary political skills for anything other than the Nasty Party.
Let’s rehearse the arguments. Social housing is in short supply. There was no incentive for long-time residents to move from a large family home other than the costs of a large house vs a small one. Government can make the costs more. But making people suffer more by cutting benefits makes them dig in their heels unless the cuts are set at cruel levels. So make cruel cuts. But then voters complain…
Here’s the human solution. Pay people to move. Freeing up a three bedroom “council” house by moving an older couple into a one bedroom “council” flat saves a hell of a lot of money. So share that saving. Pay people to move. Not a bedroom tax. A bedroom bonus.
In other words, try not to be nasty. Try to be something other than a desiccated calculating machine.
Try being human.