This morning, The Spectator held a series of discussions about the future of Conservative welfare reform, chaired by Andrew Neil and made possible by the sponsorship of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It was a sell-out invent with a stellar panel, and we’ll bring you the full reports later. But I thought it worth mentioning what our keynote speaker, Iain Duncan Smith, had to say about tower blocks and the work capability assessments made notorious in the film I, Daniel Blake.
There are 4,000 tower blocks in Britain which the former Work & Pensions Secretary says represent an “architect-led” planning mistake.
“Tower blocks, by and large, are not part of the housing culture of the United Kingdom. I don’t buy the idea that you can only get housing density by building tower blocks. I think it’s past time for a review, so we can get a more human sort of social housing… If you are going to build flats at all, build low-rise housing… The overall nature of trying to refurbish some of these very old tower blocks has led to the complications, huge costs and difficulties that we now see… I don’t think I have ever come across a constituent who has genuinely asked if they can move into a tower block.
Unless we build hundreds of tower blocks, like Hong Kong, high-rises will never make a major contribution to the UK’s housing stock – so the problem of housing density would not be resolved by tower blocks. What could help, he said, is not demonising or taxing landlords, both of which discourage people from renting out empty property.
Then to the Work Capability Assessments (WCA), designed to establish how much work can be done by those on incapacity benefits. “It was quite obvious to us that the system was far too narrow, was acting in a far too harsh manner and was making assumptions about people,” he said. And despite these reviews, the system remains flawed: “The whole process of having a benefit that says you are either too sick to work or you can work, actually works against the nature of how people think of themselves. And, thus, how you incentivise people to make the right decision.”
By the time he quit, he had started to prefer a complete overhaul. “I came to the conclusion that it was time to review the whole way we do this and remove the cliff edge,” he said.
“The cliff edge tempts people to make wrong declarations. And it means that whatever assessment you’re making becomes very critical, and that puts extra stress into the nature of what we do. So I came to the conclusion some time back that it was time to review the whole way we did this, and actually get rid of the cliff edge.
He said it’s now time to “revisit the whole idea of work and sickness benefit”.The question is what the Conservatives would do about this and whether they’re organised enough to care: an issue that I’ll look at in my Daily Telegraph column tomorrow.