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The government's housing policies are dividing London

I am genuinely fearful about the impact that the Government’s forced sale of social housing will have on the most vulnerable. Across the capital, local authority waiting lists are already over-subscribed and families with young children are living in the most desperate and dire circumstances.

The government’s Housing and Planning Bill, which returns to the House of Commons this week, is not fit for purpose. Not only will it not tackle the housing crisis facing the capital, it will actually make the situation worse. Many of the Bill’s most damaging provisions have been pulled apart by the House of Lords, and I would call on the Government to think again before forcing this Bill through Parliament.

This government has long talked of ‘making work pay’ by removing disincentives to work from the welfare system, yet this rhetoric is directly contradicted by the pay to stay rule which will hit households earning over £30,000 (£40,000 in London) with a significant rent hike. Penalising a working couple in this way is a senseless attack on aspiration – it should never make financial sense for someone to cease going out to work to avoid fiscal penalties handed down by the government.

The end of long-term, secure tenancies for families in social housing pours further scorn over two other Tory buzzwords, namely ‘community’ and ‘security’. The Prime Minister has told us that all government policies have to pass the ‘family test’, but there is nothing more damaging to family life and children’s education than moving families from property to property, in and out of school catchment areas and causing endless uncertainty about the future.     

I am genuinely fearful about the impact that the Government’s forced sale of social housing will have on the most vulnerable. Across the capital, local authority waiting lists are already over-subscribed and families with young children are living in the most desperate and dire circumstances.

The Government’s own figures show that rough sleeping has increased 30% in the last year and 102% since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. A separate study by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network found that there are over 7,500 rough sleepers in London alone.

This is nothing short of a scandal, and must serve as an urgent wake-up call. London councils simply do not have the housing stock available to them to provide for all those that need a roof over their head, and Haringey Council are already spending almost £20 million per year on temporary accommodation in a desperate effort to keep children and families from sleeping on the streets.

It is hard to fathom why the Government is planning to push through changes that would reduce social housing stock by 370,000 by 2020 according to the Chartered Institute for Housing. Whether it is the extension of Right-to-Buy or the forced sale of valuable council homes to fund these discounted sales, forcing those on low incomes into the private rented sector will only see the housing benefit bill continue to soar.

Council properties, currently set aside for local people, will instead fall into the hands of speculators and buy-to-let landlords. The Government have not set out a serious plan for how replacement properties will be provided in the same area as the lost homes, with Housing Minister Brandon Lewis telling me that housing associations will merely “have the flexibility” to replace lost stock nationally.

What is needed is more council homes for social rent. Recent history tells us that property developers and the free market won’t supply these homes – there is far too much money to be made in building high end high rise blocks for wealthy foreign buyers – so we must provide councils with the funds to build the homes so badly needed.

Not only is the Government failing to provide for the most vulnerable in our society, the Bill also makes a mockery of the Government’s apparent commitment to providing ‘affordable’ housing for those looking to get on to the housing ladder. A cap of £450,000 is 30 times the annual salary of someone employed on the Government’s celebrated ‘living wage’. The Tory front bench needs to face up to the fact that their definition of affordability means absolutely nothing of the sort to most ordinary Londoners.

What message does it send out about aspiration when only those with the help of cash-rich parents are able to get on the property ladder, no matter how hard they work?

It isn’t just the Labour Party, the House of Lords and housing charities that are calling on the Government to think again. Former DCLG Permanent Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Lord Kerslake and two prominent Conservative local government leaders – Local Government Association (LGA) Chairman Gary Porter and Chair of the LGA Conservative Group David Hodge have also publicly made their concerns known.

If the Government carries on down this path without taking the dire need to build more houses seriously, our capital city will soon be unrecognisable. Inner London is fast becoming the preserve of the super-rich and shady off-shore investors while in the outer boroughs private renters are paying ever-increasing rents to live in overcrowded and substandard homes, in thrall to unregulated landlords free to treat their tenants however they please.

Our great capital is fast turning into two cities as the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows ever larger, and the danger is that if we do not act now this division will become permanent.  

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.