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21 September 2015

London used to be the city of opportunity. Now that’s under threat

Britain's housing market leaves young people locked out not just of owning a home, but getting the top jobs in the first place. 

By Siobhain McDonagh

The worsening problems of the UK’s housing market are having a dire impact on the ability of talented young people to get on in life. London especially is increasingly becoming exclusively accessible for young people who can thankfully rely on the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’, a luxury that few can afford.

For so many, especially those from poorer backgrounds, London has been the hub of opportunity. Families have brought their children up in its tolerant and diverse communities. It has welcomed migrants from around this country and from abroad who have sought refuge or greater opportunity.

My own family tells that same great London story. My father was born in Ireland and came here in 1947 to find the work he could not access back home: he built our roads, our offices and our infrastructure. In London he met my wonderful mother, who also arrived in 1947 in the first cohort of nurses from Ireland. They worked hard, set up a home, and brought up two daughters. And they were immensely proud to see my sister become a Baroness and take her place in the House of Lords, and to see me become the MP for their home of Mitcham & Morden.

I am proud of my family’s story, and feel strongly that it was both my parents’ resolve and the opportunities afforded to them by this country, and this great city, that made our subsequent achievements a possibility.

And it is quite devastating to see that the doors that were open to me and my sister are now closing. As Sadiq Khan described in an essay for the Fabian Society in 2013, the story of London is fast becoming ‘a tale of two cities’. The city is concurrently an ‘international playground for the wealthy’, while the vast majority of Londoners struggle to make ends meet, spending most of their ever-weakening salaries on ever-spiralling living costs.

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Indeed, research from the Sutton Trust published last week documents the dire impact of the housing crisis on the futures of talented young people who are starting out in life, especially those from poorer backgrounds who are seeking to better themselves and their families. While many of the rapidly growing industries like the digital economy businesses and jobs are increasingly being established outside of London, such as in the North, London continues to be the place to be for the top jobs in medicine, politics, finance, policy, law and so many others. However, despite the concentration of these traditional and highly competitive industries, young people, especially from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds, are being priced out of the housing market.

Of the new graduates moving to London, fewer than six per cent now come from the UK’s poorest fifth of local authorities, while 42 per cent come from the wealthiest fifth of authorities. This is a clear indication of the many practical obstacles to moving to London for many young people, such as finding the funds for rent deposits upon securing a job. As a result, more young people than ever share, with the number of young, single people living in shared accommodation rising by 28 per cent in the last decade. The picture is also stark for those fortunate enough to think about buying: the report finds that as of 2014 there were only two London boroughs, Bexley and Barking & Dagenham, where the average house price was less than eight times the average income.

Social mobility is clearly not just about getting people from poorer backgrounds into good universities: today, that is just half the struggle. It’s also about enabling them those young people to take up the most competitive jobs. As a result of London’s housing problems, young graduates are increasingly reliant on the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’, where there are such funds available, either to pay a deposit, guarantee a loan or provide accommodation.

What of the many talented, bright young people, tomorrow’s life-saving doctors, human rights lawyers, and prime ministers, who are not fortunate to have such a safety net of financial support?

Families with children desperately need affordable social housing, but so do young people struggling to make a start in the world too. And as the housing crisis in London gets worse, so will the prospects of those who have the skills, education and intelligence our economy and society needs, but not the luck that is now essential for beginning a career in London. The UK’s brightest young people deserve to have the same opportunities to progress to the top of their careers as their better-off counterparts, and deserve just the same level of access to our capital.

Building affordable homes should not just be a catchy political slogan, but must become a reality. The report makes a number of recommendations which focus specifically on young people finding a foothold in London. Recommendations include market-based student-type housing, and covenanted, privately-rented housing, where new dwellings remain in the private rented sector for a set number of years, rather than becoming lucrative investment.

For instance, factory-built, pre-fabricated housing can fulfil the housing needs of young people quickly and with limited expense. An excellent example of this housing can be found in my constituency of Mitcham and Morden, where the thirty-six apartment Y:Cube development welcomed its first tenants this month.  The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and are rented out at 65% of the area’s market rent, making them affordable. The units are compact and energy efficient, ideally designed for the urban environment, and relatively low cost for the tenant to maintain. The developments in general also offer a real social investment for investors, while offering a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience.

There are many options available, but each needs practical, and not just rhetorical commitment. Electing a Labour mayoral candidate who fought on a strong housing platform is a start. But we also need a demonstrable commitment from all that this is a cross-party problem with hugely significant repercussions.

London is one of the greatest cities in the world and it must remain home to some of our country’s most ambitious graduates, irrespective of their backgrounds.

Our great capital city enabled me to get where I am today, and it must continue to do so.