A Tale of Two Housing Schemes.

On the way into town from Casa Langtry, on opposite sides of the road, are two supported housing schemes: the first, formerly almshouses, built by Georgian and Victorian worthies

and the other built in 1969, by the local council.

Both are designed to provide secure, affordable accommodation for older people who need some support, but still wish to have their independence.

My ‘patch’ of Colchester has quite a few former almshouses, as do many market towns, although ours are particularly concentrated around the military barracks, homes for destitute former soldiers being a very Victorian good cause indeed.

Walking through the Winsley scheme, there is a generosity and thought, a human scale to it utterly lacking in many modern housing projects, both public sector and not. It’s not just that every resident truly has their own front door (the layout is that of a Georgian crescent), that there is ample green space, or that is both quiet and thoughtfully close to town, shops etc; it has been designed so people would actually want to live there.

The supported housing opposite the Winsley housing scheme was built in response to a similar need. And yet, it is somehow more ‘institutional’, more obviously a place built for poor people to live in, less a part of the community in some undefinable sense. I’m sure the staff in both schemes do an equally excellent job at keeping the residents safe and cared-for, so it’s not about that; it’s about the extent to which the poor are felt to be part of ‘us’.

Being an economist, this led to me to think about our changing attitude to ‘moral hazard’ in relation to social provision. The problem of moral hazard concerns risk being taken by those who do not bear the cost of that risk; so, in this case, the risk of people not providing for their old age safe in the knowledge that they would be housed by a charity ie by resources provided from the labour of others.

It was precisely to address this risk of people choosing to turn to charity or the public purse rather than work, and provide for themselves that conditions in workhouses for those of working age were made so unutterably vile. This isn’t the place to rehearse those horrors, but suffice to say that over time, the public rejected that model in favour of state-funded unemployment benefits, and public provision of decent housing for those unable to purchase housing for themselves and their families, as well as the elderly. There was to be no shame in being poor, and needing assistance.

Now, it seems we are moving towards the worst of both worlds, not only in the government’s contrast between the poor, including the working poor, who are ‘on benefits’ (as though claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance were a sort of drug), and ‘hard-working families’, but also in the simultaneous stepping-back of both private charity and the state.

The provision (whether good or dreadful) of housing and welfare assistance in kind or cash by private bodies was ‘crowded out’ by the state, quite deliberately. Many, if not most of the housing charities that provided both almshouses and the successors to workhouses have been effectively subsumed into the general public housing stock, and can only be accessed via council housing lists. Private provision of welfare assistance, other than foodbanks, is a dead duck - and it’s worth noting that foodbanks can only be accessed via a referral from public bodies such as the Jobcentre or a GP.

The government says it want to encourage private charitable involvement in finding solutions to poverty (other than lobbying for a living wage and affordable rents, one presumes). But its own rhetoric gives the lie to this. Why on earth would would a charity or a philanthropist wish to get involved with helping the poor when the government is so insistent that their problems are largely of their own making, thereby making them more likely than not undeserving of state assistance as of right?

I began with two housing schemes, one built by philanthropy, another by the state, but both in response to a need, not for profit, but because it was the right thing to do. The world I want to live in sees not the cramped provision as of right provided by the state, nor the airy generosity of vision afforded by a rich man’s conscience, but the best of both: public provision, free of shame, taint, or moral hazard, because the people needing the help are ‘us’, not ‘them’.

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