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Newham Council’s controversial efforts to move housing benefit recipients 160 miles to Stoke has caused a stir this week.

We should not be surprised – it was clear from the moment the government imposed a cap on housing benefit that families would need to relocate to other areas where housing is more affordable. How many people and families will be affected by the housing benefit cap will become clearer in the coming months and years.

The policy of councils moving people on housing benefit to other places raises important questions, including the value of social networks. Indeed, a major criticism of the policy is that it will weaken ties with family and friends.

A few of us at the RSA have been discussing an interesting blog post on the subject. It makes a good argument for viewing social networks in a more nuanced and accurate way, as fundamentally ambiguous and neither good nor bad in themselves. Too often social networks are discussed as forces for good without considering their negative other, or flip-side. This naivety no doubt has a lot to do with the social networks that people commenting on them belong to and dare I say it, social class.

Discussion on social capital and social networks can feel excruciatingly middle class. But everyone irrespective of background, or starting point in life, will have their own experiences of social networks having positive and negative effects. From my own experience, they supported me and my kid brother when we were left to fend for ourselves. And at the same time, it is no coincidence that many of the people I grew up with left school without any qualifications, have ended up in prison and have been drug dependent since childhood.

Matthew Taylor argues that rather than romanticising community and social networks we need to address the complex question of the pros and cons of social capital in disadvantaged communities. I think he’s right and given our work in this area, the RSA is well-placed to start answering this question.

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