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

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia