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 Nicholas Lezard guide to spending your book advance

It was quite wonderful, once again, to be able to do things such as go to restaurants, develop a fairly serious port habit and generally not scrounge.

Well, the good times had to end, as they always do, I suppose. I spent the last few months of 2016 experiencing the novel sensation of not being broke. You should try not being broke some time: it’s delightful. Then again, maybe you’re already not broke. We’ll come back to this later.

Anyway, the last time I had enough cash to be free of any kind of worry was back in, I think, 1989. I had an office job and was also getting regular work on the Sunday Correspondent. It wasn’t exactly two salaries but it was certainly at least one and a half.

One day, though, the good people at British Telecom – for that was where I was mostly employed – decided that I ought to be promoted. I didn’t like this idea, because it meant that I would have to start doing some actual work, rather than pottering around the place chatting to people and going for four-pint lunches. So I resigned. What could possibly go wrong? The Sunday Correspondent was a fine paper, and maybe one day I would be literary editor.

You may be wondering, if you are under 50, what the Sunday Correspondent is or was. Well, exactly. It was, as the keener among you will have worked out, a newspaper, a nice, liberal one, which appeared – the clue is in the name – on Sundays. And then one day it didn’t. So within a fairly short period of time I went from having two jobs to having none, and since then I have not troubled the bank by having more money than I know what to do with.

Oh, I get by. There are many, many others much, much worse off than I am. But it was quite wonderful, once again, to be able to do things such as go to restaurants, develop a fairly serious port habit and generally not scrounge.

My munificence to my children was lavish, for once. They’re not daft, though, and they knew it couldn’t and wouldn’t last, and when all those horrible bills that come at the beginning of the year came at the beginning of the year, the status quo ante reasserted itself, and I am going to have to rein things in once more. Rather fewer plates of eggs Benedict for breakfast at the posh eatery in Baker Street, and rather more bowls of Rice Krispies instead.

Or I could find a rich woman. This is the traditional lifeline for the indigent hack, or at least it used to be. Jeffrey Bernard, my sort-of predecessor, would just sit in the Coach and Horses, and sooner or later, after he had put out a distress call in his column, in would come another woman who saw romance in the life of the penniless barfly, and he would be OK again for a while. However, he was writing in the Spectator, which tends to circulate among people with money. I can’t pull the same trick off here, for obvious reasons.

I also wonder if something has changed in the nature of wealth. People who have the stuff these days generally don’t pass it on to people who don’t. The days of the patron are over. What they pass on instead is either impertinent and unwanted advice or simply a dirty look. (Naturally this does not include those kind souls who have been kind enough to help me out towards the end of awkward months in the past.)

But I had my time in the sun for a while, and very pleasant it was, too. I could have saved up the modest book advance for a rainy day but as far as I can see it’s always a rainy day around the Hovel, so what the heck, I thought. Also, it would be very much not in the spirit of the Prix Goncourt or the Jack Trevor Story Memorial Cup, the terms of which dictate that the prize money must be spent in two weeks with nothing to show for it.

I was awarded the Jack Trevor Story prize last year – or possibly the year before that, it’s all a bit hazy – and I like to think that I maintain a standard of fecklessness whether I’m being rewarded for it or not. And the sum involved, I should add, is not big, and two-thirds of it is being withheld until the book is written, and then published.

It’s a fair deal, though, and I’m not grumbling. I have made my bed, and I must lie in it, although I didn’t realise that it would have so many Rice Krispies in it. You try eating cereal in bed without spilling any. The only real problem with doing so, it occurs to me, is that I don’t think there are many women, rich or not, who would be attracted by the prospect of sharing a bed with me and my breakfast. And I can’t say I blame them.

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 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge