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 decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era