Build, baby, build. (Photo: Getty)
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We know we have a housing crisis. Here's what we can do about it

Britain's housing market is in chaos. Here's how to fix it.

If anyone needed more evidence of why Margaret Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister was so bad for this country, they need look no further than today’s social housing waiting list. The size of the list, which has reached 1.8 million people, (and with most people having little hope of being housed) can be directly linked to the introduction of ‘Right to Buy’, via the Housing Act 1980.

As part of research for my new report, released today, Everyone Knows We Have A Housing Crisis: Let's Do Somethnig About It one constituent told me she’s been waiting on the list for over 24 years!

Since the coalition government was formed in 2010, the housing crisis has clearly worsened. Under the auspices of the Localism Act, councils have been given the freedom to abandon their social duty to house those in greatest need. Another flagship policy, the ‘bedroom tax’, probably one of the most damaging and divisive policies ever introduced - seeks to free up larger properties by surcharging tenants for unused rooms, irrespective of whether smaller properties are available locally.

People have had enough of living with the fear of not knowing how they will pay next month’s rent, and are exhausted by politicians who fail to take actions bold enough to fix the crisis.

We now need a fundamental change in the way we see housing and its purpose. For this change to occur, we must move away from treating houses purely as financial assets to be shuffled around for maximum gain and instead ensure that we provide decent and affordable homes that meet people’s needs.

My new report demonstrates how housing has become unsustainably expensive, and how fresh political will and innovative mechanisms are needed to make housing work for people again.

When Ed Miliband launched his party's rent-control policy last year, the Tory’s accused him of bringing in ‘Venezuelan-style’rent controls, in an attack aimed at making the Labour party look overtly socialist. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Labour’s timid rent control policy would put an upper limit on rent rises based on average market rates. This does nothing to help those people who are already struggling to pay excessive rent in the private rental sector. If salaries and benefits rise as predicted, rents need to stay still or even fall as they are out of balance with everything else.

What we need to do instead is explore the possibility of setting up a ‘Living Rent Commission’ to look at implementing a genuinely affordable rent control policy dependent upon local median incomes, not market rates. The fact that “affordability” is now defined as a function of market rate, set at up to 80% in some places - rather than local income, has in effect “rendered the word affordable meaningless.”

The Green Party seek to increase the amount of social rented homes (council housing) as the best way of ensuring an availability of affordable housing. Greens are committed to building 500,000 new social rented homes by 2020.

We’re also calling for a 'Right to Rent' policy which would allow homeowners who are unable to meet their mortgage payments and are under threat of repossession to have the right to transfer ownership to the council, in exchange for the right to remain in the home and pay rent as council tenants.

Whilst I support a mansion tax, there are better and bolder ways to introduce fairer housing taxation schemes to address the housing crisis. One way would be to reform council tax to ensure that as property values get progressively higher, the tax paid on them also increases. Another option would be the implementation of a land value tax.

Under the government’s Empty Dwelling Management Orders, only 17 empty properties were brought back into use last year; this suggests that more powers should be allocated to local authorities in this area too. By criminalising squatters who it’s clear do more good than harm the government has only made the problem of empty homes worse.

The solutions to the UK housing crisis already exist. What we currently lack is the necessary political will to make the radical but necessary changes that are urgently needed.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?