Affordable housing

On May 1st, voters should consider the housing manifestos of each mayoral candidate because the new

It is now just over a week until London decides. The slanderous war of words is proliferating, with the candidates jousting in a marathon of hustings and journalists and commentators trading blows and insults as they throw their support behind one of the two front-runners.

There are few things that the most influential players in the mayoral election race agree on. Crime and transport are at the top of the agenda for the majority of Londoners, and there has been a raft of differing proposals concerning bendy buses, residential speed limits and the congestion charge, as well as all the interpretations about whether London has become more or less safe in the last four years.

But there is another issue that is marching up the ladder of electoral importance, both locally and nationally, and that is housing; or more specifically affordable housing, and London’s lack of it.

London has the most acute housing and homelessness problem in the country. At least 3,000 people slept rough in London in the past year and the capital accounts for around 70% of the 79,500 homeless households in temporary accommodation in the country.

Stark though these figures are, homelessness is not an issue upon which election campaigns are won and lost. The reason why housing has shot up the agenda in London, as it has throughout the country, is because of a housing crisis which is deepening, and beginning to pervade throughout all sectors of society.

The average house price in London is almost £360,000. This is roughly 13 times the average wage, of £27,868. Shelter’s ROOF affordability index revealed last week that house prices for first time buyers in London have risen a staggering 250 per cent in a decade.

With the housing market as it is, despite recent talk of a market downturn and a credit crunch, the housing policies of a prospective mayor’s manifesto would always have taken on added significance. But this importance is intensified by the recent GLA Act which gives the next mayor direct authority over spending and investment, which, amongst other things, allows him to determine the budget that will be made available for social rented housing.

So as the pledges in their housing manifestos take on greater consequence, how do the mayoral candidates plan to help ease London’s housing crisis?

Let’s start with the current incumbent. While Ken would not be able to use London’s record on affordable house building as a staunch platform indicative of certain re-election, his term in office has been underlined by a firm commitment to the delivery of affordable and social rented homes. He has introduced a target for all London boroughs to ensure that 50 per cent of all new developments are affordable housing, with 70 per cent of this affordable housing allocated as social rented housing and 30 per cent intermediate housing.

Boris echoes the man he is hoping to succeed regarding the importance of affordable homes, with plans to build 50,000 more in the next three years at the centrepiece of his housing manifesto. He would scrap boroughs’ 50 per cent affordable homes target, leaving each Local Authority to set their own goals for housing delivery. He argues that this would make their targets more achievable, but with the vast majority of boroughs already failing dismally in delivering affordable housing, too much flexibility would sanction targets that are too low. The Tory candidate has also stated that he would split social rented to affordable at 60:40 as opposed to Ken’s 70:30 - at a time when waiting lists in the capital are standing at around 334,000.

Brian Paddick’s plans are the most inventive. He has pledged that the publicly owned land will be used to produce low-cost affordable rented accommodation and has been vocal in his support of housing associations and his commitment to affordable housing. However the manifesto does not explicitly state which groups this low cost, rented accommodation will be targeted at and he hasn’t stated a specific target or numerical commitment on social rented housing.

Albeit to varying degrees, there is much to be optimistic about in each of these manifestos. But manifesto pledges are just that, and often, even the most well intentioned promises, they might not be achievable. For despite Ken’s clear commitment to housing – there has been a year on year increase in the number of social homes built during his term as mayor - last year the 32 London boroughs built a grand total of 7,965 social rented homes.

So while I am tentatively optimistic having read the housing manifestos, the most important thing for Londoners is that their elected mayor can work with councils and local authorities to ensure the housing is not just promised but delivered. Whoever the winning candidate, they may not be elected on their housing manifesto, but they have the opportunity to be remembered for it if they successfully meet Londoners' housing aspirations.

Adam Sampson is the Chief Executive of Shelter

To find out who you should be voting for in the London Mayoral Elections on May 1st, click here.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood