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Poverty is relative

Social housing tenants in the UK have nothing to complain about compared with slum dwellers in Mumbai, writes Tony Soares

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A few weeks ago, I was dragged by my daughter and my niece to see the film Slumdog Millionaire. I didn’t really want to go but the girls needed a lift to the cinema, so I had to oblige.

I could not believe slums like those portrayed in the film could exist but my niece, who has been to Mumbai, assured me they did.

Slum dwellers live in horribly inhumane conditions without the basic necessities of life.

Even inmates of the worst prisons are treated better. They have better toilet facilities, some privacy for bathing, much cleaner dining areas, hygienic cooking and more comfortable sleeping conditions, in sharp contrast to those of slum dwellers portrayed in the film.

It puts into perspective our own experience with social housing in this country. It is true that in our city centres we have a few hundred people sleeping on public footpaths or in doorways.

But these people could, if they really wanted to, avail themselves of hostels or shelters. They can claim housing benefit for rent and income support for food to eat.

Slum dwellers, on the other hand, are destined to live and die in abject misery, with little hope of breaking out.

We complain about ever-lengthening waiting lists for social housing, but every housing worker will tell you of the new luxury cars parked on social housing estates. Poverty is relative.

We now produce subsidised housing in greater numbers than ever before. Times of recession are growth times for social housing, because the government bails out the builders.

But we give little thought to how money is allocated or prioritised. In most cases, it is allocated by a junior administrator or by a computer.

Nowadays, there are few - if any - checks to see if an applicant’s housing or income circumstances have changed since they first applied.

The choice-based lettings system introduced with great fanfare a few years ago is a joke, though few housing professionals would dare to admit it.
Most people in urgent need of a decent place they can afford are left bitter and frustrated by the bidding system.

Housing developed for the special needs of newer refugee and migrant communities has ended up accommodating totally different groups and communities.

It is crazy that £60,000 to £100,000 in taxpayers’ money can be spent building a single social home, which is then let to anyone spotting the advert in a paper or on a website and phoning in with a bid. Little or no scope for checks, home visits or balancing communities exists.

Speaking of taxpayers’ money, which is nowadays doled out by our government in billions, brings me back to the issue of fat cats.

I have previously moaned about the salaries paid to senior staff in the social housing sector, but these are dwarfed by the amounts claimed in golden handshakes and bonuses by company directors at banks and insurance companies.

It is those directors’ greed that got us into the recession in the first place. A yearly pension of £703,000 for someone who lost his bank billions is more than many people would earn in a lifetime. It is like winning the Lotto every year for the rest of your life.

Interestingly, the amount won by the Slumdog Millionaire contestant - portrayed by our own Harrow-born Dev Patel - was 20 million rupees. That works out to around £260,000. Riches, too, are relative.

The amount is much less than the annual salary of the highest paid chief executive in social housing. I noticed that one brave chief executive, Barbara Thorndick of West Kent Housing Association, suggested that in these times of recession with so many of our tenants losing their jobs, senior staff should show some restraint and take a pay freeze or a pay cut.

I have not seen a headlong rush to take up that suggestion, but I could be mistaken.

The real squeeze for us will come when the recession is over and a future government makes us all pay, through increased taxes and cuts in public expenditure, for the largesse given to the banking fraternity by, among others, a Labour government.

Better make hay while the sun shines and put some by for a rainy day.

Tony Soares is a housing consultant

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