Sam Alvis

Naked Politics Blogger

Housing is the most prominent issue facing London. With a rising population, unequal development and flawed policy the housing ladder is rapidly being pulled out of reach. Every week new reports emerge, bedroom sharing is up, narrowboats are overcrowding city’s canals, or ghastly sums charged for a mattress in someone’s kitchen. Mayoral candidates, left and right, are rushing to make housing their defining issue, but national policy threatens to undermine them.

The housing crisis can be split into three interrelated issues. In the rental sector rents have risen by over 15% in London since 2011, six times higher than in the Northeast. With the average monthly rent now £1500 and young people losing up to 60% of their wages to rent, landlords hold all the power. Housing is poor-quality, landlords are absent, and endless ‘admin’ fees rip off consumers.

From March 2014 to 2015, 21,370 homes were built in London. Only 5610 were affordable. Shelter argues this is half of 43,000 required. Supply shortage, with demand rising from population growth, means London housing costs double the national average. Foreign investors using dormant housing as a means of storing money diminish the supply further.

This has knock on effects on social housing. Since Margaret Thatcher offered council tenants the right-to-buy, the Government has been repealing council homes. Blair’s housing associations are now also at risk as the Tories extend the right-to-buy. Housing benefit now goes mostly into the pockets of private landlords charging what they want. With welfare caps and housing benefit cuts for young people, London Councils in 2015 rehoused 28% more people outside of London. I don’t mind moving as prices change, but the thought of being uprooted from family, friends and work as far as Manchester and Liverpool is terrifying.

With a problem this grave, London Mayoral candidates are clambering over each other to promise reform. On the Right, Boris Johnson started an investigation into building on public brownfield sites, although this isn’t likely to finish before he leaves office. His voluntary landlord accreditation scheme, tackling rogue owners, has had little uptake. A report in the Guardian this week found even London’s most convicted landlords are still trading, viewing fines as business expenses. Prior yesterday’s all-male shortlist for London Mayor, most Conservative candidates have been quiet on policy. Andrew Boff leads the Mayor’s taskforce on overcrowding, but hasn’t defined what policies he’ll employ, whilst Ivan Massow’s charge on developers to fund council buildings will never be implemented after he missed the cut.

For Labour, front-runners David Lammy, Sadiq Khan and Dame Tessa Jowell all talk big on housing. Khan wants more integration of social housing developments, banning separate entrances to complexes for affordable housing, known as ‘poor doors’. Lammy has released a 41-page report on housing and wants 63,000 homes a year, rent controls, and greenbelts abolished. Tessa Jowell has a different tact. She wants Homes for Londoners, similar to TFL, it will be a public body dedicated to affordable housing and rents. Building will start on the 5,700 acres of public land, whilst a rent-to-buy scheme will bring the housing ladder in reach. But all these promises are at threat with subtle changes to planning laws. The Chancellor wants developments of less than 10 homes to be exempt from providing social housing, in order to boost overall housing supply. However with many London developments around this number it threatens an already dwindling supply

Like many Londoners, I can’t see myself owning a home soon. Living like a Spartan to put together a deposit for a meagre one-bed isn’t my idea of fun. But other Europeans don’t suffer this problem. In Berlin long-term rents, and rent controls, protect tenants from price-hikes. They also remove the need to move yearly, accumulating mysterious ‘admin’ fees from agents. A healthy economy relies on affordable housing because it means more disposable income for spending elsewhere.

London should look at devolving housing policy. Its needs are vastly different to cities like Lincoln, where building new homes is cheaper than mending old ones. Councils could borrow to invest in social housing, whilst we should look at changing land prices to include social housing. This way affordable housing won’t be a loss in potential revenue but a requirement to realise it. Boris’ accreditation scheme is valiant but needs greater powers, too many rogue traders threaten Londoner’s well being and the rental process is too opaque for an equal relationship between owners and tenants. Schemes like Tessa Jowell’s might also look at the 1000-4000 vacant properties in London boroughs, retrofitting and improving their quality to provide cheap rents but protect property values.

As with much of the city I’ll be keeping a close eye on the mayoral race. Who knows, if Homes for Londoners is a success I could get a finger on the bottom-rung. There’s a nice property on the end of the Mall I’ve had my eye on.

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Last Update: April 29, 2018