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.