The Great Housing Benefit Scandal: or doley scoungers will murder middle class tax-payers in their beds

OK, I really, really, should not ever read the Daily Express. Or the Mail. Or the News of the World. Or – oh you get the idea. I think it was the great G.K Chesterton who observed that if you can get your readers angry enough they will write half your paper for you, and oh how true it was in a world without blogs.  Today my wrath has been brought about by an unfortunate morning of disputes with my bank over a mysterious bank charge and an even more mysterious direct debit, and then being given a copy of the Daily Express to read by a friend. Given that I am of a fairly placid disposition, what caused my outrage today?

The Express headline today was  “20.8 billion cost of Housing Benefit: Taxpayer’s fury as handouts hit all time high”.

Yeah, that’s a lot. It’s two thirds the cost of the the Law Courts, the Prisons, the Fire Service and the Police (33.4 billion). Our whole Defence budget is only 42.1 billion — twice what we spend on housing benefits.  Unemployment benefits come out at 4.2 billion, pensions (including sickness and diability) at five times the cost of housing benefit at at 110.1 billion and  the NHS was almost the same in 2009 – just 101.5 billion. Hell, we could have nine and a bit Afghanistan wars more for what we pay to benefit scrounging doley scumbags in Housing Benefit! Huzzah!

Christopher Chantrill has done an incredible job of producing a website ( ) which lets you look at what both central and local government spends on, and it makes fascinating reading. I took my figures from there, and freely acknowledge my debt of gratitude to him. The DWP also produces spreadsheets on Housing Benefit payments, by local area – the bill was for example in 2002/2003 19.7 million in Cheltenham, and 3.8 million lost in revenues to Council Tax Benefit.  Bury St Edmunds that year paid out 14.2 million, and lost 2.9 million to Council Tax benefit. Unfortunately they only go up tp 2007/8.

The Press Are Such Fun!

But there are perhaps wider issues at stake here. To start with, the Daily Telegraph tells us –

“The Government estimates it will pay out £19.6 billion in housing benefit during the 2009/10 financial year, according to figures slipped out on the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) website. “- from

OK, slipped out by the DWP? What a sneaky bunch that DWP are, slipping out their statistics. (Remember that phrase a moment…) Slippery folks! Luckily the brave defenders of truth at the Telegraph and the Express have told all!  Great — but in the same words?

“Fears of an explosion in welfare over the coming months were revealed in the statistical forecasts slipped out by the Department of Work & Pensions yesterday.” – that’s  from today’s Daily Express, p.4.

So they just shamelessly copied a two day old Telegraph story and made it headline news, even using the same wording in places? That’s a slip up! Well the author of the piece was shown on Radio 2 tosometimes put himself under a high level of pressure to live up to his high standards” – maybe this was actually written by a staff reporter under his by-line? Or more frighteningly, maybe the right press do actually usually refer to DWP forecasts as slipped out, and crib old articles for their headlines. Who knows?

Yet they could save so much time, for  here are a few headlines that work even better –






Definitely things that concern us all, and I generated them by the wonderful Daily Mail-o-matic headline generator. Go have a go. It’s fun!

Back to Housing Benefit…

Both articles give the same quote from Theresa May, who always has something to say, blaming the government, and lots of stuff about fraud, wastage, and general condemnation of Britain’s benefit culture. The Telegraph quote her at length, and i’m pleased she acknowledges “Housing benefit can provide valuable help to people in work or pensioners” before continuing to attack Labour’s record. What I found really fascinating was this line form the Telegraph article –“Nationwide 17 per cent of households receive some form of housing benefit, but in areas of London the figure reaches more than 40 per cent.”

What?! Why?? How??? Well my guess is that in some ares of London 40% of people are jobless or on low incomes.  Housing Benefit is means tested – the Rowntree Foundation Report back in 2003 highlighted the problems with it, and showed that actually on average it leaves a gap of £19 a week between what is paid and actual rent costs, leaving those on low incomes and the dole struggling: HB does not pay all the rent. Add to that the fact that most landlords want payments pcm, per calendar month, and yet councils pay on a 28 day/menstrual or lunar cycle, and you get 13 cheques a year all too small to meet the 12 payments of rent you might need to make. Might not sound like a problem, but budgeting is harder then I guess, as your HB payments are movable feasts, moving back a couple or three days each month except February. Just pray you have enough cash to make up the difference?

So who are the villains?

Doley scroungers? Immigrants? Single mothers? Henry the mild mannered janitor? Nope. The villains are you and I. Why? You like shopping at Tesco, Waitrose, Marks and Spencers, ASDA, Iceland? Go to Lloyd’s Pharmacy? WH Smiths? Expect a  student pharmacy tech to make up your pills and drips when is hospital? Well as few of the staff  are paid enough to actually be able to afford to rent at the market price, and there is hardly any council housing left as it’s all been sold off, what are they supposed to live in? the stockrooms?  Cheap prices in your supermarkets are subsidized by wages not far above minimum legal wage, and certainly not enough to pay the whole rent in this town, or most others. Employers can pay these low wages because at the end of the day they can get away with it, knowing the taxpayer will pick up the tab, and pay for their workers subidised accommodation.

If wages were living wages, then perhaps people could afford homes without state handouts. Sadly all too often they are not. You cn earn £16,000 a year and still get housing benefit in a lot of the UK – because rent prices are so high. An average shop wopker round here can after a couple of years expect a take home pay of £936.60 a month. The rent for a place in these parts is about £600-£700, with single bedroom flats at c.£400 -£500. Add bills and Council Tax and hey, no money for food. So how do they survive? They claim Housing Benefit and Council Tax. Abolish those, make the Taxpapyer’s Alliance happy, and the unemployed might manage to find rooms in something like the dosshouses of the19 50’s, but the average shop worker and low paid NHS staff is going to need a serious pay rise: the only solution then would be is to raise the minimum wage to maybe £15 an hour – and then we will see the profits of the High Street dwindle, and prices soar. Or alternatively we can do it the other way – only employ people who already own houses and have mortgages which are dirt cheap in these days of low interest rates, creating a vast underclass of unemployable non-homeowners who can’t afford to pay rent? So Housing Benefit subsidises the lowest paid, not just the doley scroungers, and artificially keeps wages low.

And why our rents so high? Actually, they aren’t. They are fairly competitive, considering how much mortgages cost and house prices. It was the Middle England obsession with house prices, and the artificial bubble of ever increasing house prices which have put home ownership forever beyond the reach of a generation, like my girlfriend who works in a bank, is fairly well paid, but could never hope to actually be able to afford to buy even the cheapest of houses in her town based on what the banks would lend her. House prices are now so expensive that rents must follow — and the gap between home owners and those who rent, between the haves and have -nots, has opened up so much that now all that can be done is to subsidise our workers to keep a roof over their heads using taxpayer’s money.

The real tragedy of the last twenty odd years was not Housing Benefit: it was escalating unrealistic house prices, banks lending vast sums without proof of income to a credit hungry nation allowing the prices to go up and up unchecked in a bubble, and the fact no government would say no to Daily Express readers and actually try to end the housing market price rise. It’s not the landlord’s fault – it really is the entirely foreseeable outcome of  a world were a one bedroom apartment in North London goes for £195,000,a nd you can buy a parking space in Stoke Newington for 15k, more than many shop workers earn in a year. If one day the poor do kill middle class home owners in their beds, it will be this gap between housing and salary, not housing benefit costs which causes it. 😦

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in Social commentary desecrated and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Great Housing Benefit Scandal: or doley scoungers will murder middle class tax-payers in their beds

  1. Shirl says:

    A really good artical, and yes knowing my luck cyclists would turn my house gay and probably have sex with my pets!

  2. elmbury says:

    I have a theory that if Daily Mail readers were banned from reading that rag then suicide rates would decrease by at least 25%. Once when I told a Daily Mail reading relative that we didn’t want to have children they told me that they could understand the reasoning as the world was such a terrible place to bring children up in!

    Sadly the standard of journalism is ever decreasing as people get their news more from the TV, RSS feeds and…err… blogs.

  3. Joel Monka says:

    As a colonial, I was surprised at your salary and rental prices- especially when I converted to USD. I whine a lot about my property taxes, but after reading your numbers… wow. My house is 2,900 square feet, 3 bedrooms, three full baths, two fireplaces, polished hardwood floors, attached sunroom with 550 gallon spa, detached garage; mortgage, including tax escrow: $1,600 USD/month. (991 GBP)

    As far as your newspapers go, I like them! If you saw what passes for news around here, you’d understand- the Times Online and the Mail had better, more in depth coverage of our Presidential election than our papers had. Or our television, for that matter. And the Sun had better exposes. So to speak.

  4. What we really need are lots more council houses. Owned by either the council or a non-profitmaking housing trust. Then simply don’t pay any housing benefit at all; you’d just get allocated a house (if you have children) or a room in a communal house (if you don’t have children). Money made using the right-to-buy scheme should then be ringfenced to build more council houses.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      One of the biggest problems is actually I suspect our expectation of housing. Joel has pointed out that in the USA housing is dirt cheap in comparison: sure, plenty of wide open spaces and cheap land in the suburbs, and houses there are to my understanding built of wood and plasterboard, not brick. Now try and get a mortgage on a concrete prefab these days, or a wooden structure in the UK: you will struggle. It’s the weather apparently.

      Oddly however wood is the primary building material in a lot of Danish homes: land remains expensive, but the actual properties can be rebuilt, extended, and replaced through their lives. The Danish climate is far more extreme than the British.

      People laugh at Atlee era prefab, but for the families who lived in them during the acute housing shortage fo the forties and fifties they were wonderful. Building huge amounts of well constructed prefabricated homes with lightweight modern materials, properly insulated and with plenty of room, that can expand as the family does, seems a sensible solution to me: and increasing the social housing stock is clearly a necessity. It doe snot have to be council – Housing Associations do it very well indeed.

      The hostels you suggest already exist: walk up Vittoria Road on lunch and you will find the YMCA, which has been there over a century. It is always full to bursting with young people needing a bed and a friendly place to stay, despite the Village People implications. You can’t allocate housing though (though that s exactly what councils do) – economic mobility ios desirable, nd people may need to move to get to a job. Still the YMCA is a superb hostel for the single, right in the town centre.

      There is no money left from Right-To-Buy: it’s pretty much gone along with the Housing Stock. Sadly a lot of RTB tenants were caught up in “you buy the house and we front you the money then get it when you die” schemes etc, where developers got RTB tenants to buy houses at the reduced rate for their own gain. What housing stock is left has often been passed over to ALMO – arm’s length management companies, independent of the council – in Cheltenham this would be Cheltenham Borough Homes, who hold all the old council housing stock and administer it for the council.

      The only real way to reform HB might be to get the companies who benefit from low wages to pay up: offert tax breaks if they build affordable housing for their staff. It’s te old Christian Socialist dream we see at Bournville and some of the new towns, where enlightened employers make decent housing available so they can keep their workforce happy: but I’m not sure it would work these days?

      cj x

  5. Joel Monka says:

    I’m sure land prices are cheaper here, but I’m also sure that the building techniques are a bigger factor in the costs. I don’t see where weather enters into it, though. This house was built in 1870, and yes, it’s wooden- but it has survived temperatures from -40 to 106 (Farenheit, obviously), 6 ft snows, tornados (look it up, Indiana is legendary for its tornados) and 70MPH straight line winds. I can’t imagine your weather is more violent than ours.

    You’re quite right about the advantages of prefab construction. While snobs around here call them “McMansions”, they do provide spacious, inexpensive housing for young families.

    P.S. On second thought, -40 is the same in Celsius, isn’t it? But if my math is right, 106 is 41 Celsius.

    • Joel – Honestly, it’s just the land costs. The UK has a policy called “green belt” which prevents urban sprawl, and policies called “conservation areas” which prevent building in most rural areas. Pretty much the only land available for house building is former industrial sites and flood plains, both of which require very expensive remedial work before they are ready to be built on. Even then, the plans have to be approved by local councils, who are voted in by local people who resist change. Ergo hardly any land is available for building, what little land is made available is very expensive and planning permission for large numbers of houses is exceptionally rare.

  6. Note that the rental sector in the UK is tiny compared to most other European countries. The UK has a massive percentage of home ownership; 55% of households own their own home. In France it’s less than 20%. In the US it is more than 65%.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s