Increasingly out of reach for ordinary people. Photo: Getty Images
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Queen's Speech 2015: A bad policy that will make the housing crisis worse

Far from helping with the housing crisis, the government's plans to sell off housing association stock will make matters worse.

The Queen has just delivered her government's speech, setting out their programme for this year. Just across the river, council homes on the Vauxhall Gardens Estate are in danger of being forcibly sold as a result.

As rents and house prices continue to rise and the supply of housing fails to come anywhere near demand, Londoners worry about how they can continue to live and work in the city they love. They recognise that we are facing a serious homes crisis. And they understand that it's a crisis we must tackle urgently if we are going to save everything that makes London great.

That is what makes the government's right-to-buy extension, announced in today's Queen's Speech, so upsetting. It is a policy which is blind to what is happening in London. Indeed, it is a policy which appears almost designed to make London's homes crisis even worse.

The government’s plan is to force housing associations to sell off homes at a massive discount, and to pay for it by making councils sell all their most valuable property. That would be a disaster for London. It would drain our city of affordable housing and make it even harder than it already is for Londoners to find somewhere to live. It would tear our city apart.

It’s a plan that will largely be paid for by London’s councils, but mostly benefit those outside the city. According to the National Housing Federation, just 15 per cent of London’s housing association tenants would be able to afford to buy their own homes under the proposals, compared with 35 per cent outside London. Yet the majority of the money raised from selling off council homes will be here in London with councils such as Camden, Westminster and Islington facing the prospect of selling a substantial proportion of their homes.

As Mayor of London I want to oversee a big increase in the supply of social and affordable homes in London. But the government’s plans would require us to redouble our efforts just to stay in the same place. There are currently 255,000 households on waiting lists for social housing in London, a list that continues to grow as supply is unable to keep up with demand. But since discounted right to buy was brought back to London, for every 23 homes sold just one has been replaced. Under the new plans, instead of getting to grips with council waiting lists we would have to expend almost all of our energy, resources and land just to replace the homes that are being sold off.

I want to bring the city together as One London. But this policy would further divide London, rather than unite it. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, selling off councils’ most valuable property would create “clearer divisions between areas where richer and poorer households are located”. In London this is a particular problem, with zones 1 and 2 threatening to become a millionaires’ playground – a no-go zone for the nurses, teachers and council workers on which our city relies.

There are big questions about the feasibility of the policy. The figures don't appear to add up.  The funding from council home sales is unlikely to be enough to compensate housing associations, certainly in the early years of the policy. And the government will probably have to raid the national housing budget in order to make up the difference. So there will be a double whammy: fewer social homes as councils are obliged to sell their stock, and less funding for new social housing too. 

The last thing Londoners need right now is this government's ill-designed plan to sell off our housing. It will lead to fewer homes for social rent and higher prices in the private rented sector. It will help empty inner London of everyone but the very richest. And it will put vast numbers of currently affordable homes into the hands of private landlords. In other words, it will make our homes crisis much, much worse.

Building a strong and successful London – One London – means Londoners having a home, at a price they can afford, where they feel safe and where they can put down roots. I've announced plans for a new Homes for Londoners authority to get London building the homes we need, for the first time since the 1980s. But this housing giveaway threatens to make that task much harder. That's why I am determined to fight this proposal every step of the way.

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.