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22 April 2008

Affordable housing

On May 1st, voters should consider the housing manifestos of each mayoral candidate because the new

By Adam Sampson

It is now just over a week until London decides. The slanderous war of words is proliferating, with the candidates jousting in a marathon of hustings and journalists and commentators trading blows and insults as they throw their support behind one of the two front-runners.

There are few things that the most influential players in the mayoral election race agree on. Crime and transport are at the top of the agenda for the majority of Londoners, and there has been a raft of differing proposals concerning bendy buses, residential speed limits and the congestion charge, as well as all the interpretations about whether London has become more or less safe in the last four years.

But there is another issue that is marching up the ladder of electoral importance, both locally and nationally, and that is housing; or more specifically affordable housing, and London’s lack of it.

London has the most acute housing and homelessness problem in the country. At least 3,000 people slept rough in London in the past year and the capital accounts for around 70% of the 79,500 homeless households in temporary accommodation in the country.

Stark though these figures are, homelessness is not an issue upon which election campaigns are won and lost. The reason why housing has shot up the agenda in London, as it has throughout the country, is because of a housing crisis which is deepening, and beginning to pervade throughout all sectors of society.

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The average house price in London is almost £360,000. This is roughly 13 times the average wage, of £27,868. Shelter’s ROOF affordability index revealed last week that house prices for first time buyers in London have risen a staggering 250 per cent in a decade.

With the housing market as it is, despite recent talk of a market downturn and a credit crunch, the housing policies of a prospective mayor’s manifesto would always have taken on added significance. But this importance is intensified by the recent GLA Act which gives the next mayor direct authority over spending and investment, which, amongst other things, allows him to determine the budget that will be made available for social rented housing.

So as the pledges in their housing manifestos take on greater consequence, how do the mayoral candidates plan to help ease London’s housing crisis?

Let’s start with the current incumbent. While Ken would not be able to use London’s record on affordable house building as a staunch platform indicative of certain re-election, his term in office has been underlined by a firm commitment to the delivery of affordable and social rented homes. He has introduced a target for all London boroughs to ensure that 50 per cent of all new developments are affordable housing, with 70 per cent of this affordable housing allocated as social rented housing and 30 per cent intermediate housing.

Boris echoes the man he is hoping to succeed regarding the importance of affordable homes, with plans to build 50,000 more in the next three years at the centrepiece of his housing manifesto. He would scrap boroughs’ 50 per cent affordable homes target, leaving each Local Authority to set their own goals for housing delivery. He argues that this would make their targets more achievable, but with the vast majority of boroughs already failing dismally in delivering affordable housing, too much flexibility would sanction targets that are too low. The Tory candidate has also stated that he would split social rented to affordable at 60:40 as opposed to Ken’s 70:30 – at a time when waiting lists in the capital are standing at around 334,000.

Brian Paddick’s plans are the most inventive. He has pledged that the publicly owned land will be used to produce low-cost affordable rented accommodation and has been vocal in his support of housing associations and his commitment to affordable housing. However the manifesto does not explicitly state which groups this low cost, rented accommodation will be targeted at and he hasn’t stated a specific target or numerical commitment on social rented housing.

Albeit to varying degrees, there is much to be optimistic about in each of these manifestos. But manifesto pledges are just that, and often, even the most well intentioned promises, they might not be achievable. For despite Ken’s clear commitment to housing – there has been a year on year increase in the number of social homes built during his term as mayor – last year the 32 London boroughs built a grand total of 7,965 social rented homes.

So while I am tentatively optimistic having read the housing manifestos, the most important thing for Londoners is that their elected mayor can work with councils and local authorities to ensure the housing is not just promised but delivered. Whoever the winning candidate, they may not be elected on their housing manifesto, but they have the opportunity to be remembered for it if they successfully meet Londoners’ housing aspirations.

Adam Sampson is the Chief Executive of Shelter

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