The Lilies of the Field

Cheap at half the price

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin” – Matthew, 6:28

A friend of mine was recently given a grant of £50,000 by her employer towards buying a flat costing £130,000. Good on her you might think, until you realize that, as an employee of the public sector, this money came from the taxpayer, you and me, many of whom are unable to afford houses for ourselves.

The money is given as a grant to what are known as ‘Key Workers’, those whose work is deemed so vital to the public wellbeing that they have to be given housing subsidies at public expense to be attracted to an area. Given their generous pensions and holidays it might not be unfair for the taxpayer to ask just how much of an incentive public sector employees need to work in an area and whether the heavy cost is worth it. When the scheme was launched, John Prescott said “High house prices often drive them (key workers) away from the neighbourhoods where they work”, but this is the case for everybody everywhere. The arguments against the key worker housing grant fall into practical, moral and economic categories.

The practical argument rests on the idea that key workers need to be close to their employment. True, nurses and social workers may have to be on call, or may have to work shifts. But the same applies to security guards, bar staff and the traders who work at places like New Covent Garden market. A bar worker in a pub will kick out the last drinkers at 11:20 and probably wont have cleaned up until close to midnight, is it fair that they should be expected to bear the burden of late night travel while a key worker is paid up to £50,000 to avoid the inconvenience? The traders at New Covent Garden lead an almost nocturnal existence yet no one is throwing money at them to buy them a house by Battersea Bridge.

This leads on to the moral argument, namely, is it fair that someone, somewhere, should be deciding whose jobs are more important than others? It doesn’t matter so much, the argument goes, if a fruit sales man from New Covent Garden is put off by the journey into work because society can afford to lose him more than the pediatric nurse who doesn’t fancy the grueling trip from Barking to the Royal Free in Hampstead. Indeed, very few of us would deny that nurses perform a more immediately useful service than a bar worker, and these are the terms in which the debate is usually conducted.

But lets look at some of the other beneficiaries of this generosity with our money. In Bromley (maximum grant £50,000), key workers include Speech and Language Therapists, Social Workers, Educational Psychologists, Occupational Therapists and Probation Staff. West Sussex (maximum grant also £50,000) defines key workers as including qualified Occupational Therapists, Rehabilitation Officers for the visually impaired and Speech and Language therapists. In Basingstoke, the list of those deemed so necessary to the public well being includes Rehabilitation Officers for the visually impaired, Speech and Language Therapists, Local Authority Planners, Educational Psychologists, Occupational Therapists and qualified Social Workers.

This leads us to the economic argument. According to John Prescott, who launched this scheme, key workers “are critical to thriving, sustainable communities”. I wouldn’t deny that this is true of nurses, fire fighters and the Police, but it is also true of the halal butcher, the paper shop owner, the accountant, the estate agent, the publishers assistant, the electrician…as I walk down Walthamstow High Street it is the market traders selling clothes, toys and food, the café owners selling fried breakfasts and tea and coffee, and the 24 hour internet cafes full of homesick immigrants who create the wealth and the activity, the employment and opportunity and, lets be right, the tax base, that supports Prescott’s “thriving, sustainable communities”. Next to these the contributions of Speech and Language Therapists, Local Authority Planners and Rehabilitation Officers for the visually impaired look pretty thin.

It’s a question of wealth, who creates it and who spends it. The Local Authority Planner may, in actual fact, do a very important job which has positive effects for all in the community. Social Workers undoubtedly do good work as may the Probation Officers. But they do not create any wealth, they only spend it. Without the private sector, made up of the market traders who are unable to afford a mortgage and the secretary I know who faces a two hour commute each way, there would be no public sector at all. No nurses, no firemen and no Police. They do not, for the most part, create wealth, they spend it and wealth has to be created before it can be spent. Ask yourself, who are the real key workers?

NBThe Starter Home Initiative, launched in April 2004, is expected to cost the taxpayer £5 billion. Think about that when youre struggling to keep up your mortgage repayments.

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