Ed Miliband looks around a newly-built council housing complex in Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Labour isn't going to promise a million new homes

The party says the existing target of 200,000 a year by 2020 is "ambitious but realistic".

Labour has long made it clear that a large housebuilding programme will be at the centre of its programme for government, with Ed Miliband promising 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 in his conference speech last year. But some regard this target as inadequate, arguing instead for a pledge to build a million new homes over the course of the next parliament. Ahead of this autumn's conference, and the completion of the party's housing review, led by Michael Lyons, there has been speculation that this will be the final manifesto promise. 

But a Labour housing source confirmed to me today that this wasn't the case. "There have been a lot of promises made on housebuilding in the past and those haven't been met. Our target of 200,000 by 2020 is ambitious but realistic," he said. "The last time we built 200,000 homes in England was the 1980s. History shows that after every crash and recession the recovery in housebuilding takes longer and the average that you get back to is then lower." 

The government currently forecasts a fall in the number of houses started this year from 133,650 to 128,000, and Labour reasonably argues that it won't be possible to get construction up to 200,000 in the first year of the next parliament (the rate required to achieve a million by 2020). "200,000 by 2020 is ambitious and it will require fundamental change to get there," the source said.

Shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds will shortly have more to say on how the party plans to increase construction by small firms and by self-builders. The Lyons review is also examining whether to lift the cap on some councils' borrowing, although a source emphasised to me that this wasn't a "silver bullet". Outside of London, there are few councils anywhere near their loan limit. 

But while 200,000 a year by 2020 will remain the target, Labour regards this as "a plot on a journey upwards". The ambition is to deliver a "sustained increase in housebuilding" of which 200,000 is the start, not the end. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem