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