BORIS Johnson has infuriated PM David Cameron.
ONE of the first things a foreigner notices about London is the way it throws rich and poor together, with multi-million-dollar mansions sitting beside subsidised housing for the poor.
Paris keeps its scrappy immigrant suburbs a long way from its beautiful, wealthy central area, most US cities have equally sharp dividing lines based on race and wealth, and the average suburb of an Australian city tends to be relatively homogeneous.
But even though Britain is still heavily class-bound, its capital city is a social jumble, with council estates and subsidised tenants squeezed into glamorous areas such as Chelsea, Kensington and Notting Hill next to neighbours such as Richard Branson and Paul McCartney.
That could be about to change because of radical cuts in housing benefits announced by Prime Minister David Cameron, prompting warnings that more than 100,000 low-income earners may be forced out of expensive suburbs in a way that will transform the look and feel of Europe’s most dynamic city.
London Councils, a lobby group for the city’s 32 boroughs, says 82,000 households with up to 250,000 people may have to move home and many will be dumped into distant boroughs that are unable to cope with the influx.
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and a member of Mr Cameron’s Conservative Party, went so far as to compare the changes with “social cleansing” when he promised this week that his city administration would fight to reduce the impact of the national government’s changes.
“We will not accept a kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London,” he said. “On my watch you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have put down roots.
“The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris, where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs.”
Mr Cameron was furious about Mr Johnson’s provocative choice of words, but local councils and housing charities say there will indeed be an exodus caused by the benefit cuts, which come into force next April with the aim of trimming pound stg. 2.3 billion ($3.7bn) from Britain’s budget deficit.
Westminster and Kensington-Chelsea councils admit they have already begun searching for new accommodation in cheaper boroughs or outside London for people who will be forced out of their homes. Westminster said it would try to find new homes locally for families with children facing crucial exams but many other children would be forced to change schools because their parents would not be able to afford to stay in the central London borough.
Terry Lane, 49, a printer for an architect’s firm near Westminster’s Tottenham Court Road, said the government had “not thought through the results of these cuts, either for the people who will get dumped into poorer areas or for London itself”.
“Once you separate people into rich areas and poorer areas, like in America, you will get a harsher sort of city and all sorts of negative repercussions because people will no longer feel they are part of the general community,” he said.
Mr Lane has already been forced to move from Westminster, where he had lived for 30 years, because his full-time salary and housing benefits could not keep up with London rents.
He and his wife, Teresa, and son, Joshua, 22, a university student, moved 11km last year into a small flat in the nondescript suburb of Hendon, and he said it had been “just soul-destroying to have to move away from your work and your friends and social networks just because rent is so crazy in this city”.
He now takes home pound stg. 1156 a month, and with the pound stg. 470 that Teresa earns after tax as a part-time school aide, plus pound stg. 200 in housing benefits, their pound stg. 1100 monthly bill for rent and council tax leaves them with less than pound stg. 170 a week for all other expenses.
“I can’t afford to drive or drink or smoke and when the weather is OK I walk the seven miles (11km) each way to work to save the train fare,” which cost pound stg. 36.80 a week, Mr Lane said.
“The ridiculous thing is that a lot of people in London are in the same situation as us,” said Mr Lane, whose pound stg. 19,000 salary is below the city’s pound stg. 28,000 median but higher than the incomes of 500,000 full-time workers in London.
The Thatcher government’s radical move to allow public housing tenants to buy their homes was “a really good move”, Mr Lane said, “but the problem is that in the 30 years since then not one government has put in the money to rebuild the stock of affordable housing”.
The Blair government responded with a system that helps 1.2 million low-income earners to rent from private landlords by providing allowances up to the average market rent for their local area, but the cost has ballooned, increasing the benefits bill by pound stg. 5 bn over the past five years.
In a small number of cases the taxpayer ended up paying more than pound stg. 1000 a week in rent for large families, and the new cuts will include a cap of pound stg. 400 for a four-bedroom house, with lower limits for smaller households.
“There’s no doubt that these cuts will have a devastating impact on London and could change the face of the capital for decades to come,” said Campbell Robb, chief executive of the housing charity Shelter.
“More than 100,000 people will have to move out of central London and that means people having to move away from their jobs and taking children away from schools.”