Further and further out of reach. Photo: Getty Images
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The root cause of London's housing crisis: we don't build enough houses

Far from fixing the underlying problem, the Conservatives' mucking around with demand-side issues will only make things worse.

Elizabeth is in her early thirties. In January, after more than a decade living in London, she decided it was time to leave. 

The staggering rise in the cost of renting – up by around £3,000 a year for the average London property since 2010 – has left many of those, like Elizabeth, without a foot on the property ladder considering whether it makes sense to stay here. Meanwhile, increasing house prices have essentially guaranteed that very few of those who do stay will get the opportunity to buy.

Rising costs are perhaps the defining issue, but they are far from the only problem facing London’s housing stock, with inexcusably high levels of overcrowding, homelessness, dire property standards and rogue landlords on the rise.

Yet, these seemingly disparate problems have a common thread; we simply haven’t built enough homes in London. For Elizabeth, this has meant unpalatably high rents. For Emma – who contacted me because her landlord consistently failed to fix a chronic damp problem that led to her son developing asthma – this means increasingly few options to escape the type of negligent landlord to whom she and her husband pay large sums of rent every month.

This raises a fundamental question: Does the proposal to extend Right to Buy to housing associations do anything to solve the extensive problems we have with London’s housing stock?

The National Housing Federation estimates the policy could cost UK taxpayers as much as £12billion if all eligible and able housing association tenants took up their new right. £2billion of this would be required in Greater London. Alternatively, this would be enough to fund the construction of more than 66,000 much needed affordable homes, many of which would be for first-time buyers.

But the implications for housing supply run much deeper than government spending. This is a policy which facilitates state-sanctioned asset stripping of housing associations (many of which are charities), undermining their ability to borrow for new house building. The result could be fewer homes, higher prices and a deepening housing crisis – it is the antithesis of what London should be aspiring to.

There is a double injustice in the proposals though, with plans to fund it by forcing councils to sell their most expensive homes when they become available for re-let. Analysis of the proposals show that this could result in the forced sale of every council home that becomes available in the City of Westminster. The parallels with Shirley Porter are stark, and the implications for London’s mixed and balanced communities dire.

Even then, it is difficult to see how the funding will stack up. The £4.5billion that the Conservative manifesto estimated would be raised through local authority housing sales has been pledged to three different items – the cost of the extra Right to Buy discounts, building replacement homes for those that are sold, and funding a new £1billion ‘Brownfield Regeneration Fund’. Compare this with the NHF estimate that discounts alone could cost up to £12billion and the figures just don’t add up.

Many Londoners will understandably have trouble believing the government will fulfil their pledge to replace all sold homes. The previous Government promised the same in April 2012 when announcing the reinvigoration of Right to Buy. But since then 4,017 council homes have been sold in Greater London and only 1,530 started, and this without the additional pressures of compensating housing associations and funding an additional £1billion programme.

The fact is that we can only fundamentally tackle London’s housing crisis by building more homes, and we need to do so urgently. We can see that the personal dilemma faced by Elizabeth is shared by thousands of other Londoners and that the city’s public services and economic competitiveness are increasingly undermined by this crisis.

Yet, it would be difficult to devise a housing policy that is as carefree with the public finances but as socially damaging as the proposal to extend Right to Buy to housing associations.

Ask yourself this question: If you suddenly found £12billion that you were willing to spend on a housing policy, would you use it in a way that delivers fewer homes, makes it harder for most to get on the property ladder and increases the difficulty of tackling homelessness? I wouldn’t. I don’t think the Government should either.

 

Tom Copley AM is the Labour London Assembly Housing Spokesperson and a Londonwide Assembly Member

 

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.