A row of houses in the north of England. Photo: Getty Images
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The government's plans are nothing short of an attack on social housing

Social housing used not to be the preserve of the few. That's a ideal worth harking back to, says Tom Copley.

There were some good things in George Osborne's budget. Scrapping non-dom tax status (a Labour manifesto pledge rubbished by the Tories at the time), reducing mortgage interest tax relief for private landlords and increasing tax relief for homeowners who rent out a room. The former two will dampen demand for property and the latter will encourage more efficient use of housing stock.

But let's turn to the bad and the ugly. This budget is the continuation of an all-out assault on social housing by the Conservatives. It began under the Coalition when the affordable housing grant was cut by 60 per cent. Housing Associations were told to introduce the so-called "Affordable Rent" at up to 80 per cent of market rent, and make up the shortfall in funding to build new homes with borrowing.

Then came the last minute Tory election pledge to extend Right to Buy to Housing Association tenants. Even with the £100,000 discount paid for by the government, this will erode Housing Associations' asset bases and thus their ability to borrow the very money they need to make up for the cut in grant from the government. This week's surprise announcement of a government imposed one  per cent annual cut in social rents further erodes their finances and thus their ability to build.

I support cutting rents for social tenants. In fact I, along with nearly every borough in London – red, yellow and blue – vehemently opposed the decision the Chancellor’s previous Government took in 2011 to essentially redefine social housing as anything charging up to 80 per cent of market rent. But the harsh reality is that without any subsequent increase in grant it will mean fewer much needed affordable homes being built - 27,000 fewer according to the National Housing Federation.

George Osborne lamented the 20 per cent rise in social rents since 2010. Yet it was he who agreed a ten year inflation plus one per cent rent increase with Housing Associations in 2013. To renege on that agreement now will plunge the social housing sector into chaos, and may result in a judicial review. Unsurprisingly he had not a word to say about sky high private sector rents.

Turning to councils, they will be forced to sell high value properties to pay for the discounts for Housing Association tenants exercising their new Right to Buy. In practise this means that any new council homes built by inner London boroughs like Islington will have to be immediately sold off as they will all be worth more than the government's regional cap.

Taken in isolation the imposition of one of these policies may be regarded as merely misguided. But taken together is difficult to see this package of measures as anything other than a deliberate attempt to sabotage the delivery of social housing. First they cut government grant and told Housing Associations to make up the difference with more borrowing and higher rents. Now they're undermining the Associations' borrowing ability and forcing them to cut rents.

Meanwhile, all social tenants who earn above £40,000 in London or £30,000 outside will be forced to pay market rent for their homes. This Aspiration Tax will discourage social tenants from earning more for fear of losing their homes. It will encourage others to exercise the Right to Buy, meaning yet more social housing will be lost forever. Work and benefits are not two different lifestyle choices. People move between the two. Social housing is supposed to provide stability for those who can't or don't wish to own a home. Getting a new job or a pay rise shouldn't put the stability of that home at risk.

The Tory justification for charging better-off tenants market rents is to say it's wrong for them to get subsidised rents. This is wilfully misleading. Unlike the Tories' huge Right to Buy discounts, social rent is not subsidised. It covers the maintenance, management and debt repayments of the home. We must be careful not to look at this problem down the wrong end of the telescope. The problem isn't that social rents are too low, but that market rents are too high. The real solution to high market rents is to build more genuinely affordable housing, a goal which this budget makes even harder to achieve.

George Osborne's plan may yet fall apart. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility warned in its budget overview that his meddling with Housing Associations may see the ONS reclassify them from private to public organisations, bringing £60 billion of their debt onto the government's books. But if it goes ahead the legacy will be even fewer new genuinely affordable homes than we're building now.

At the root of this lies a fundamental debate about what social housing is for. The Conservative view is that it is housing for the poor and that anyone with "aspiration" should leave it, whether they wish to or not. Yet before it became so scarce many middle class people lived in social housing. Nye Bevan's dream for council housing was of the "living tapestry of the mixed community." It was a noble dream indeed.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.