Opinion: social housing rent should be means tested

Our Lib Dem MPs seem to be lining themselves up against the Prime Minister’s suggestion to review they way council houses are allocated, but doesn’t the desperate shortage in affordable housings mean we need to look at reforming the allocation system? Few benefits are given without continued means-testing, so why should council housing be any different?

I am completely against turfing out council tenants when they no longer need it. However, regularly assessing how much council tenants can afford, and adjusting rents accordingly, would be a fair way of allocating what is a precious and finite resource. It would also help increase the availability of affordable housing, particularly if extra revenue was ring-fenced and targeted specifically at buying new housing stock.

A few years back there was a report of Ken Livingstone’s advisor, Lee Jasper, being paid £100K+ but still living in £90-a-week social housing. Clearly this is far from the norm, but it highlights the absurdity of a system that allows people who can obviously afford more to still benefit from a council house.

Means testing is not without flaws, in particular the cost of administering it and the financial disincentive it introduces. Looking at the spectrum of benefits and ensuring tax credits properly compensate any losses can deal with disincentives. And extending the systems that already exist to assess need, means that that this new policy wouldn’t mean a costly reinventing of the wheel when it comes to administration.

As a London councillor, I have lost count of the number of heartbreaking cases I have dealt with where a family is living in desperately inappropriate ‘temporary’ accommodation, whilst they wait endlessly for a council house. They are being let down by the system that fails to do its best to match housing to greatest need. I think we owe them a duty to look at any measure that has the potential to increase the supply of council housing, particularly at a time of public sector austerity. Maybe our MPs should have a second look?

Ed Butcher is Liberal Democrat Councillor for Stroud Green in Haringey.

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  • Andrea Gill 10th Aug '10 - 1:38pm

    @Adam Bell – Cameron was just shooting his mouth off at a PM Direct, Grant Shapps’ version of the same story with the exchange scheme is far more reasonable!

  • David Thompson 10th Aug '10 - 1:51pm

    My heart sinks when I read this rubbish.

    The big problem is a lack of affordable housing. Council, now housing association housing was never meant to be a safety net for the poorest but a viable alternative to the private rented sector or for those who could not afford, or did not want to buy their home. We are rapidly heading towards the same conditions which initially prompted some of the public sector house building programme, namely too few homes being built, a poorly regulated, over-priced private rented sector and house prices which are too expensive for all but the few to afford unless they are already on the housing ladder.

    Means testing would not magically produce lots of available houses and flats but would simply add another layer of insecurity to their tenants and yet another layer of expensive bureaucracy. Far better to introduce good quality legislation covering the rights of private tenants including rent control to bring them more in line with council/housing association tenants. If we are not sure how to do this then please just take a look across the Channel to our European neighbours such as Germany or the Netherlands and learn a few lessons.

  • Gosh even the Daily Snail (aka Mail) has to admit that 80% of Council House tennants (probably Housing Association tennants but what the heck) have incomes of less than £21,000 a year.


    In fact, the majority can’t even afford to pay the rent without Housing Benefit – a situation made worse by Labour increasing rents above inflation each year, creating a wasteful bureacratic money go round and worsening the poverty trap.

    While the BBC high lights the difficulty of buying even with an income of more than TWICe the average:

    Means testing is pretty crap – one person on £15,000 income scrimps and saves £10,000 and is denied benefits, another of £20,000 spends wastefully yet qualifies as they have no savings.

    Someone on an income of £25,000 may be considerably less wealthy in terms of assets, than someone with an income of £20,000

    Incomes flutuate for many household/people who don’t have life long jobs – two teachers, income £50,000 a year, then one has a baby, only you’ve already means tested them out of their house and into a mortgage which on their reduced income of £25,000 they can’t afford. Lets not get onto self-employed, short term workers, people on “flexible” contracts etc

    Or poor Joe who gets a promotion and now earns £30,000 but is similarly shoved out into the private rented sector
    despite having no money for a deposit or chance of a mortgage being now 55 yrs old

    The real problem is that money was switched under Thatcher and then by subsequent PM’s from builting coucnil houses to paying housing benefit. It used to be splitaround 90% Council Houses -10% Housing Benefit now it is the opposite split.

  • David Allen 10th Aug '10 - 2:11pm

    This seems to me only marginally less brutal than Cameron’s idea. However, what about a rent that depends on the level of occupancy? So, the rent for a 4 bed house with a family of 4 living in it is X, but when the children leave, it becomes X + Y. Nobody forces the couple to leave, but they save money if they do.

    (I’ll just add that this is an amateur idea written in ignorance of the details of this market, if an expert wishes to tell me it is not workable, then please go ahead and do!)

  • @David Allen… you may consider the author’s ideas brutal (when they are nothing of the sort), but your idea surely requires the services of a new bedroom police service – entering houses without notice to see how many toothbrushes they are and whether beds have been slept in.

  • In answer to the question posed; council housing should be different to other benefits because council house tenancy is not a benefit. It is renting from a social rather than a private landlord, the transaction is exactly the same. Social housing is considered to be subsidised by looking at market rents and then charging short of what this notional sum might be if that accomodation was let out on the private market. Calling this a benefit is the equivalent of selling a second-hand T-shirt to your friend for £9 that you may have been able to sell on ebay for £10 and saying that you have subsidised your friend and therefore she/he is on benefits.
    In what world can it be feasible to legitimately argue that a persons home should be means tested?
    The only workable solution to the problems encountered in social housing is more houses. Redesignating all social housing as temporary accomodation rather than affordable homes does not solve the problem at all it just redefines the problem whilst removing responsibility from the state to provide a basic element of social justice. Liberals committed to social justice should be campaigning to remove the obstacles to house building rather than looking for more ways to blame the helpless. Tenants are not responsible for solving their landlords problems nor are they in any position to.

  • @ their_vodka. Housing is a right, but the problem as far as I can see is that there is not enough to go round. What is the social good of people who can afford more being given the most affordable houses?

    @donpaskini. Incentivising wouldn’t necessary drain the extra revenue. Incentives still would work, even if they were not a direct compensation.

    @David Thompson. Sorry you think my idea rubbish. I would fully support better private sector protection. It seems unfair that not all people are offered the same level of tenancy protection as afforded to a social tenant.

    @Mouse. On the basis of that fact the majority therefore wouldn’t be affected, but your stat reveals also that 20% earn almost the national average. Is it not reasonable to say that they can afford more rent to help raise more revenue to invest in extra housing?

  • A better regulated private rented sector would be an excellent idea.

    Since 2006 there has been at least three major reviews which are relevant to the private rented sector (by the Law Commission (Ensuring responsible letting), The Rugg Review for DCLG, the Carsberg review for RICS). All argued for change to the regulation of the private rented sector because the current systems are cumbersome, bureaucratic and ineffective. The Labour government supported the Rugg Review’s recommendations.

    One of the first things that Grant Shapps did as Housing MInister was to announce that the government had no intention of changing the regulation of private renting because there is too much regulation already. The Government had appeared to miss the key point, which is that although there is a lot of law and regulation that affects private renting most of it is ineffective because either people don’t know about it or they perceive that there is no benefit in adhering to it.

  • Patrick Smith 10th Aug '10 - 4:08pm

    One critical Liberal Democrat MP Paul Holmes wrote (Jan. 2008-LDV) `Defending Council Houses’,

    `The Labour Manifesto lambasted the Tories woeful record on social housing but things have got worse,not better and the continuing neglect has left over 1.6 million families on `Witing Lists’– a 63% increase since Labour took office in 1997. 408,480 social homes sold off in England alone,since 1998–1.7 million since sell off policy started in 1980.This has caused …the worst housing crisis since `Cathy Come Home’ with more children living in cramped conditions…..’

    Let us hear more views from social housing experts like Paul Holmes former L/D MP Chesterfield and from L/D members actually living in council housing, besides those of us, who understand the real scale of the housing crisis like EB et al, whose views I fully endorse?

  • David Allen 10th Aug '10 - 4:35pm

    their_vodka claims: The financial crisis, and not public debt, is the cause of the deficit.: This is just plain wrong. In fact the government is likely to make a profit on their bail-out loans to banks, more than covering any bad debts.
    I can’t be the only one who is constantly finding sub-let council accomodation when out canvassing. And the sublet is usually to groups of working adults who would never qualify for council/housing association property. If this problem was as ruthlessly pursued as benefit fraud, think how many additional homes would come back onto the social market to be reallocated to the truly needy currently living in temporary accomodation.
    Let’s also discourage 2nd home ownership by having a 100% council tax surcharge on the 2nd home. Disincentives to stay in an over-large council house too, and stop higher rate taxpayers holding council tenancies-not a widespread problem, but worth it just to get Frank Dobson out of the flat he got Camden counil to buy years ago so he could be a council tenant.
    Prateek Buch says: “Build. More. Houses. Affordable ones. Social ones. Green ones.” Affordable? By whom? Most people who could afford them don’t even get a look in… Social? So, what is my expensively-mortgaged little flat? Anti-social? I hate all these crappy weasel words used to describe public sector housing… And it’s laughable to see ‘More Houses’ and ‘Green’ used in the same sentence: how much of this country are we going to concrete over? And I find ‘Greens’ are just as loathe to see their neighbour seek planning permission to build on their back garden.. How about setting public policy to deter population growth and remove the need for all these extra houses?

  • @David Can you clarify what you mean by :How about setting public policy to deter population growth and remove the need for all these extra houses?
    how are you planning to reduce populate. Growth?

  • David Allen 10th Aug '10 - 4:48pm

    How about limiting child benefit to the first 2 children only? And removing the legal obligation for councils to build or buy super-sized houses to accomodate enormous families? If people wish, for moral or religious reasons, to avoid the use of contraception, then it should be at their own expense, not thta of society. I’d rather see that money spent on the elderly or disabled…

  • Dominic Curran 10th Aug '10 - 4:50pm

    Ed, your solution, like Cameron’s and Grant Schapps’, is a rational attempt at a response to the problem of shortages. However, I suggest to you that you are being too short-sighted in your response, and let me tell you why by way of analogy. Watching this debate about council housing unfold is rather like looking at a prison guard throw two biscuits to three prisoners and saying ‘fight it out between yourselves’. While we sit at our computers and type out various formulations for dividing the biscuits, we miss the real answer, the only humane answer, which is to give all three each enough biscuits to eat their fill. In other words, as posters above have correctly said, BUILD MORE HOUSES.

    The response to this is ‘we can’t afford it’. I am firm keynesian on this, and believe that we can. Government should and could borrow to build. It would create jobs and tax revenue (saving unemployment and – who knows – maybe even housing benefit costs) it would relieve the worst-off families from the burden of living in cramped, unhealthy and unsuitable accommodation, and would relieve the Treasury from paying the associated social costs (for example, how much from the NHS budget would we save from not having to treat all those asthma and other health problems caused by living in mouldy homes?). It would also leave us with an asset after construction (unlike Housing Benefit, which just disappears once it is paid) and it would contribute to bringing house prices down for all by increasing supply.

    If we play along with the Tories’ game on restricting council housing availability, not only are we fighting on the side of the prison guard not the prisoners, but we can also kiss goodbye to a lot of inner city councils and seats. It is our moral imperitive to fight the Tories’ plans on this, and to give Clegg the excuse to exercise a little bit of ‘cajones’ – a quality he has sadly lacked thus far.

  • Dominic Curran 10th Aug '10 - 4:54pm

    David, ‘more’ and ‘green’ are not mutually incompatible, as the Code for Sustainable Homes shows. You have a point only in that almost anything you or i do is not ‘green’, as we consume on average many times more of the earth’s resources in our lives than can be sustained. But if you accept that we need lots and lots of new homes, you can be green about it, by building to high densities, on already developed land where possible, and by building to the aforementioned sustainable code.

  • Dominic Curran 10th Aug '10 - 4:57pm

    Adam – there aren’t any jobs in building houses at the moment – that’s the problem. I’m sure you’d see more people holding trowels and cement if there were!

  • @ Dominic Curran. The reality is that council housing is limited. We have already tried to spend our way out of recession, and the lenders seem to be getting a bit edgy about giving the government more. As a pragmatist, I arguing more for a solution to deal with the problem as is rather than how the world should be.

  • Dominic Curran 10th Aug '10 - 5:27pm

    @Ed – then how about means testing the NHS? There arer plenty of wealthy people using it who could go private. Getting someone with cancer to pay, say, half of their treatment costs could save loads. In fact, asking them to pay a little bit more towards their healthcare as they earned more in a sort of tapered manner would be even better. And why not do the same with education? Why should a millionaire’s son get free education at a decent local school when he could go private and free up a place for a child of the deserving poor?

    The point is that you start off with principles and put them into action, not accept the Tories’ spin that ‘there is no alternative’ and cave in at first cabinet meeting. The reality of our situation is that if we wanted to borrow to build, we could do so. We are not Greece or spain, and don’t fall for the line of the neoconservative right in suggesting that we in the same situation. Lenders are just as able to understand the concept of building infrastructure as you or I. Once you took into account the cost savings from health, social care, edcuation and police budgets of people living in accommodation appropriate to their needs, plus the tax revenues and non-payment of unemployment benefit from employing builders, the cost over ten or twenty years becomes very small and increases the likelihood of the Government being able to pay back its bonds, not decreases it.

    Pragmatism is all well and good. But that doesn’t mean that we have to act like Tories.

  • Dominic Curran 10th Aug '10 - 5:35pm

    Oh, and our debt was 240% of GDP after WW2 (cf 72% today), but that didn’t stop us building new homes then, nor should it now.

  • David Allen 10th Aug '10 - 6:05pm

    Somebody called David Allen has written two posts at 4.35 and at 4.48 pm, and he is not me! I did in fact write the post at 2.11 pm, and I have been a frequent contributor to this site for the last two years or so.

    To my namesake – assuming you are a genuine person and you’re not just trying to take the mickey – do you think we can distinguish ourselves from each other somehow? For example, if you have a third name or initial, do you think you might be prepared to put it into your published name from now on, please? Thank you!

  • I’m getting a bit sick of hearing the ‘build more housing’ argument.
    it’s a small island, space is limited and not many people want to live in the highlands, even if they could get a job there!

    And right now the system IS means tested, on entry.
    But as it’s not then revised, many that are not eligible, whilst on often pretty low income, end up paying for people that earn more than them to get cheaper rents than what themselves pay.

    Unless you expect EVERYONE to get a subsidised home (impossible, and anyway who would pay for that then?), then some fairness needs to be introduced.

    Also be very careful about forcing private renting regulations, there’s so much tenant protection in france that trying to get a flat there if you’re not VERY secure and have family to back you up is getting impossible!

  • ‘Many people see the coalition using the crisis as ideological cover to dismantle the welfare state. The poor, the needy, and the working class of this country did not cause the deficit. It was lending to the banks that did it. So why should we pay for their crisis? Talking up sovereign debt as if the sky was going to fall is the biggest confidence trick foisted on the people of this country by Cameron & the coalition.’

    Well said – this Conservative led coalition is merely using the cover of the supposed need for cuts to allow them to impose their free market small state ideology on the people of this country – efecting the poor more than any others – the attack on council house tenant is just part of it! We can afford to build more affordable housing and not turf people out of council hoses after 10 years or whatever – but of course the tories hate council housing and of course those living in council houses. How much lower will this so called coalition sink – watch this space!

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Aug '10 - 10:09pm

    Adam Bell

    The answer is that planning permission massively inflates the cost of building – and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find anywhere that you’re allowed to build. You should know this yourself from your experiences in Clerkenwell.

    Have you ever sat on a Planning Committee Adam? Can you give an estimate of the massive inflation you claim?

    I sat on LB Lewisham Planning Committees for 12 years, and found it was very difficult to get house building plans rejected completely. The developers might sometimes try it on, and you could reject it and ask them to put in something slightly less dense or dominating, but this idea that councillors can and do routinely turn down applications to build houses is wrong. In almost all cases the advice from council officers was that we would have to accept because if we didn’t, the developers would win on appeal and we would have to pay their costs. On many occasions, I found myself leaving a Planning Committee to shouts of “shame” or “they’ve been bribed” from local residents who’d objected to some development plan, because the residents believed we could accept or reject as we wished, and simply did not understand that we could not reject unless we had clear legally supportable reasons to do so.

    As for the idea that we can build to satisfy completely all housing demand, we cannot. People will always demand bigger housing, more housing. However much we might like to, for example, we simpy cannot satisfy the demand for big flats in Mayfair – there will always be more people who would like one than can be built.

    This is particularly so given that in this country, houses are considered as the prime form of investment. If you have spare money, you can make more by buying a house with it than by anything else. So the naive “build more houses” line won’t work, because what is to stop them being bought up as investment by people who don’t need them rather than for use by people who do? You are NEVER going to meet demand if for every person who needs a house to live in and can afford to pay £X for it, there is someone else who doesn’t need it but is prepared to pay £X+P for it because he knows it can be sold for £(X+P)*N at some future date, where N>1.

  • @Matthew Huntsbach – “If you have spare money, you can make more by buying a house with it than by anything else.” Thank you for this investment advice. I will go to my bank and estate agent first thing tomorrow morning, sell my shares and other investments, and buy as many properties as I can, as apparently buying property will guarantee a better return. Better still, I’ll call my pension fund and tell them to just buy properties. Who knows, we might be able to finance the retirement of the next few generations with this profit perpetuum mobile.

    Your argument against building more housing to satisfy further demand has a familiar ring to it. The East German government for instance used it to explain to its people why the number of cars for the people was limited. “Giving more people Trabants, or heaven forbid Volkswagens, will only lead to them to wanting BMW’s, so we should keep supply down.”. In this analogy a big flat in Mayfair is a Bentley I guess.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Aug '10 - 10:23am

    Tony R

    Thank you for this investment advice. I will go to my bank and estate agent first thing tomorrow morning, sell my shares and other investments, and buy as many properties as I can, as apparently buying property will guarantee a better return. Better still, I’ll call my pension fund and tell them to just buy properties. Who knows, we might be able to finance the retirement of the next few generations with this profit perpetuum mobile.

    Indeed, our country is currently in a big economic mess because that’s how much of the economy was being run.

    Your argument against building more housing to satisfy further demand has a familiar ring to it. The East German government for instance used it to explain to its people why the number of cars for the people was limited.

    People in East Germany did not hold onto dozens of Trabants for investment did they? Nor did they buy up Trabants at more than the cost ordinary workers could pay for them, and then rent out the use of them at big profit, paid for by the same workers having to pay tax on jobs which was circulated through government back to these investors.

    I am sorry that free market ideologues seem so resistant to the merest hint of criticism of their simplistic notions. It is a big contributory factor to housing being unavailable to those in need that many hang on to much more of it than they need for investment reasons. The fact that you seem unable even to comprehend this as a factor, and instead revert to the juvenile “anyone who does not agree with me 100% is an old style commie” speaks volumes. Yours is not realistic practical politics, it is evangelical religion.

  • Justin Hinchcliffe 11th Aug '10 - 11:23am

    David Allen is, er, a common name, no?

  • Dominic Curran 11th Aug '10 - 11:29am

    @Adam, I agree that we do need to look at the planing system. However, even under the pre-2004 and 2008 planning system we were able to deliver, at peak, 350,000 council houses per annum. Why? Not despite the legal restrictions of the planning system, but because the political will was there. Yes, many of those homes were poorly built and badly maintained and designed, and i think we as a society have learned lessons from that. But the planning system is not the obstacle to building here, as i’m talking about social housing. That needs public money. And that needs political will. And all this talk of means testing tenancies and throwing grannies out of their flats demonstates the absence of the poltiical will to actually address the fundamentals.

    I accept that not every community has the capacity to meet its local housing need, so clerkenwell can’t fit much more. But the growth boroughs in east london can meet half of the capital’s housing needs. In fact the Thames Gateway alone can meet all of the south-east’s housing needs in terms of space. Space isn’t the issue. Which brings me onto…

    @sandra F – i’m so sorry that your’e getting a bit sick of the ‘build more housing argument’. Yeah, what a drag! I, for example, hate the idea of providing ever increasing amounts healthcare to an ageing population. How annoying! In the great tragedies of world history your irritation at the idea of building housing is matched only by Naomi Campbell being inconvenienced by an appearance at a war crimes tribunal. Poor thing. Your assertion that we will have to build in the highlands is sweetly ignorant of the facts. We have only built on about 11%of the land in the UK, although we are very densly populated in world terms. Something like 70% of the land is given over to farming (bloody farms, taking over previously lush green fields!). We could meet all our housing needs by building on another 1% of the land. Not a great deal. If we built at the same densirty of continental Europe, especially Paris or Barcelona we needn’t take up much land at all, even more so if it is brownfield land, like the Thames Gateway.

    You’re right that the system is means tested on entry, though. But the wrong approach is then means testing at regular times after that. Doing so would remove the security that a home provides for people often in transient and low paid work. It would also remove the incentive to better themselves. It would also have a bad effect on families and communities as they would be forced to move on from their home against their will. Why not also chuck them out of hospital if they can afford to pay for private healthcare?

  • Dominic Curran 11th Aug '10 - 11:39am

    @Adam – another thought, after re-reading your reasons why there is a lack of supply. Housebuilders have an incentive in keeping the supply of new homes low so that there is scarcity and high prices. Because our housebuilding industry is dominiated by a few major players, all of whom sit on land banks year upon year, and because we don’t have the same culture of building our own homes as other European countries do, there is limited competition, and less incentive to build.
    Also housing boomed recently due to credit availability. No one is building now because, with such high prices, you need lots of credit, and banks are unwilling to lend those amounts. If you build more social housing, even for rent and not for sale, you increase supply and take the pressure of the private market, lowering prices, and making them more affordable.

    I just don’t think that the planing system is the culprit here, although it is a factor.

  • Justin Hinchcliffe 11th Aug '10 - 2:38pm

    So what? I just think it is a bit of a downer when someone else posts with an identical name to mine, so people can’t tell who has what views. If my namesake wants to go on posting it would be nice if we could find a way to use different names!

    David Allen (the original!)

  • David Allen 11th Aug '10 - 3:03pm

    Justin Hinchcliffe,

    So what? I just feel that it is a pity if someone else’s posts get mixed up with mine, so that people get confused as to who believes what. So if a new poster comes along and uses an identical name to the one I have posted with for a long while, I would gently invite him to change his nametag and make it more distinctive. Isn’t that reasonable?

    David Allen (the original!)

  • Hello Ed Butcher – did you change your name from ‘Rachman’ for a reason?
    The tories wanted social housing banished forever and sold council homes off cheaply (followed by the cheap sell off of nationalised industries so that our private institutions could buy them through gullible first time share owners). The tories are what they always were – the establishment, not normal citizens. Please learn from history and wise-up quickly.

  • Nikki Thomson 14th Aug '10 - 11:49am

    Some interesting comments here: I wonder whether the situation in Scotland differs from that in England.

    Some have commented on the greater populace somehow subsidising the rents of those in social housing to keep them low. That simply doesn’t happen in Scotland, where housing revenue accounts are directly funded through rental income. Housing providers can borrow additional money for capital investment, but not for the revenue costs of running a housing service and performing day to day maintenance. I agree that the greater populace pay a proportion of the rent bill through Housing Benefit – but we pay a greater proportion for those tenants on HB in the private rented sector.

    Those who would propose means testing for social housing tenants should consider the costs of administering such a scheme – not just the means test but the day-to-day rent collection. In Edinburgh we’ve gone through a rationalisation exercise with our council rents, after we found that there were over 2000 different rent levels being charged on 21,000 houses. Now we have just 9 rent bands, with rents being charged according to whether the property is a house or a flat, and on the number of bedrooms. Simplifying the structure means officers save money and time, and can concentrate more resources on dealing with other tenancy management issues. From a practical perspective, means testing would take all of that away and put us back in the Dark Ages.

    I’m with the Keynesians – we need to build more houses. I believe that during the financial crisis the then Chancellor missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something really radical. Given how dire our balance sheet already was, he could have said ‘sod it, the balance sheet’s a mess so a few billion more won’t make much difference’ and written off all residual council housing debt (the ‘mortgages’ local authorities have with the Treasury from when the houses were built, for which a proportion of rental income services the interest payments).

    He could have attached strings to this, by insisting that local authorities now spent this ‘spare’ cash on improving their existing stock and building new houses. That would have kick-started seriously huge building programmes at a time when private sector firms were going to the wall. It would have provided hundreds of thousands of new homes, cutting (and possibly eradicating in some areas) housing waiting lists.

    And at the same time, by getting hundreds of thousands of people into social housing, on lower rents, you cut the Housing Benefit bill. You also provide those hundreds of thousands of new tenants with a fixed abode which makes it easier for them to settle in their communities, find employment or training that will help them become economically active.

    It seems so simple, but of course it would never have worked … or would it?

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