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How to avoid another winter of discontent in London: Keep the Universal Credit uplift

Our Research Director Claire Harding looks ahead to the upcoming winter, and what the government must do to prevent it causing unnecessary hardship for Londoners.

When even senior government ministers are predicting a bad winter, we know we’re in trouble. Pressed in interviews about the upcoming Universal Credit cut and rising energy costs and broader increases in inflation, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said that low income families would face “a very difficult winter“, but had little to say about what the government would do about it. 

For the lucky ones in society, this will be inconvenient: favourite foods missing from our supermarket orders, having to wait in a petrol line, having to trade down a bit on the weekly shop. But for millions of Londoners it will be far grimmer: many, including older people and families with young children, will have to choose between being too cold at home and not having enough to eat.  

This squeeze — a result of incomes falling from the end of the furlough scheme just as fuel and food prices rise — is entirely avoidable. The government does not have to remove the £20 per week benefit uplift (which of course was not an uplift for the many people who only started to claim benefits during the pandemic), and they certainly do not have to do it now: according to analysis by the Resolution Foundation, 22 per cent of London’s non-pensioner households will lose over £1000 a year, amounting to the largest ever overnight reduction to benefit support. The only other cut that has ever come close was in the Great Depression, when unemployment benefit was cut by 10 per cent in 1931.  

As well as stopping income shocks, the government could have done much more to stop households from facing such high heating bills this year. Compared to other parts of the UK, London is pretty well placed to create energy efficient housing — our winters are relatively mild and our homes densely packed, with lots of flats and terraced houses, which are easier to keep warm than detached or semi-detached properties.  

But this potential advantage has been squandered – millions of London homes are still poorly insulated, and many are so damp, cold and mouldy that they make people ill with asthma or hypothermia. Homes in Tower Hamlets, many of which are flats occupied by Londoners on very low incomes, are among the least energy efficient in the country. We have a huge population of private renters, and their landlords have very little incentive to invest in better insulation when their tenants pay the fuel bills. This is painful for tenants – and it’s also a huge and avoidable contribution to London’s carbon emissions. The Greater London Authority and many London councils are making real efforts to insulate their own housing stock and to crack down on the worst landlords, but there’s little they can do without more powers, and more money. 

The government should reverse the Universal Credit cuts now, in response to sharp and unexpected increases in the cost of living — recent polling suggests that few voters would oppose keeping it at least for the hard winter months. And then it should start making serious plans to better insulate houses and flats across all tenure types, so we can use our money and fuel to heat our homes and not the air outside them.  

Claire Harding is Research Director at Centre for London.  Read more from her here.