Housing benefit: tough choices need real debate

Journalists who bother to write about local councils are a dedicated, hard-working bunch. They deserve a medal. It must be said, however, that the media debate about local council cuts has been poor. I’m sure, in part, this is down to the need to make local government stories shout loudly enough to make the front page. But this tendency to sensationalise is now doing serious damage.

Take, for instance, Norfolk. The excellent Jill Sherman wrote a long piece in The Times decrying the “savage cuts” that Norfolk County Council is making. But, as Harry Phibbs has pointed out on Conservative Home, at their peak the council will be saving £60 million a year from a £1.577 billion budget. These savings aren’t out of place with the savings that are anticipated across the public sector. Efforts are being made to preserve services where possible. This would include savings from reduced staffing in libraries and, where possible, the use of volunteers to support the library service.

There’s no avoiding that fact that councils need to have tough conversations with local residents. As the excellent and clear-eyed Leader of Swindon Council Roderick Bluh has argued in his Spending Challenge, councils “provide hundreds of services. If we are going to have enough money in future to support those who most need our help, it stands to reason that something else has to give. The money just isn’t going to be there to keep doing everything we do now”.

The onus is on the media to be a responsible partner in this debate. The Guardian’s Dave Hill, for instance, shows the way. Last year, we wrote a report with Westminster Council that proposed tenancy reforms to help councils make best use of their social housing stock. It touched on the emotive issue of fixed tenure. Dave disagreed but, reasonably, concluded that these arguments couldn’t be “condemned out of hand” given the pressures on councils.

This cuts to the heart of the issue. Councils won’t relish making cuts of the magnitude that the Spending Review demands. New polling from the LGiU, for instance, shows that decisions to share services are driven as much by necessity as ideology even though the leading lights are three Conservative-run London Boroughs. Our polling shows that an overwhelming 95% of council leaders of all stripes are planning to share services in order to cut costs.

The risk is that we end up in a perpetually shrill debate that leaves the public unable to tell the difference between tough but necessary decisions and red lines in the sand. The cap on housing benefit may indeed be one of the latter. It should be said, however, that powers to move tenants into properties that fit their needs could have helped avoid some of the pressures on housing. In the final analysis it comes down to a choice between the least bad of two unappealing options.