Squeeze were at their best in the 1970s, and this morning demonstrated that their political ideas haven’t much evolved from that awful decade. Playing out the Andrew Marr show in front of the Prime Minister, Glenn Tilbrook changed the lyrics of this latest song to insert the line “I grew up in council houses, they’re part of what made Britain great. But there are some people who are hellbent on destruction of the welfare state.” Not quite. Today’s Conservative Party is hellbent on reforming the welfare state – so it helps people out of poverty rather than traps them in it. That is what’s behind today’s news that the PM is minded to knock down the worst estates, rebuild the property and help rebuild the lives of the tenants.
Let’s take a better protest song: Jerusalem. Blake famously wrote about England’s ‘dark, satanic mills’ – the scourge, as he saw it, of British society. The closest equivalent today is sink housing estates, with mass worklessness and high levels of criminality. Children growing up with no role models:- pitifully few workers around, pitifully few fathers at home. Estates where you can’t find any fresh fruit or vegetables to buy, but the off-license and the betting shop are always close at hand. Estates where you see syringes cast in doorways, and gangs often represent the surest economic route to success. The kind of place that a teenager might be taken (as Tilbrook once put it) “from bar to street to bookie’”. And worse.
In his speech tomorrow (the text of which has been previewed in today’s papers) Cameron will talk about the warmth inside the doors of in council estates. I used to live on one, and was grateful to be there: safe, affordable accommodation in the jungle of dodgy-landlord accommodation. Not so good to have various human deposits staining the lift, but it’s a mistake to see all council estates as welfare ghettoes. In fact, as a result of the recent rise in employment, a clear majority of social housing tenants are in work.
But there is nothing compassionate about denying the extent of the social decay in the worst schemes. This is what happened during Labour years: the problem was ignored and the people living inside such places were abandoned – until, latterly, pioneering Labour reformers like John Hutton and James Purnell started the work now being taken on by the Tories. How much easier to keep writing welfare cheques and leave such people to decay in edge-of-town estates, economically isolated from the rest of society. No one accuses you of trying to bring ‘destruction’ if you leave these places to fester. The Conservatives have, under Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith, switched to a policy which aims to leaveno one left beind: no group deemed too expensive or tricky to try and help. It’s a risky strategy, with obloquy guaranteed. It means (for example) assessing all 2m people on incapacity benefit for what work they can do – knowing what an undertaking this will be, and how difficult it is to do properly. They are also replacing the notorious benefits trap with a new system, Universal Credit, which better rewards work.
I’ve long been in favour taking a hammer to the worst estates, and instead allowing parents to move to more mixed areas with better schools, safer communities and shinier prospects. But make no mistake: any idiot can knock down housing estates (as the 1960s proved) – it’s far harder to create places where people flourish. That will be Cameron’s next step. But the mission isn’t destroying welfare; it’s the destruction of poverty.
PS This graph shows who has seen their income drop the most so far under Cameron…
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