London housing in crisis

Jeremy Corbyn MP looks for ways to resolve London’s appalling housing crisis. Go to any London borough on any weekday morning. The desperate queues and stress outside the housing offices show what the free market and the boom in house prices mean to those in desperate need.

Walk around London at night and you will see the return of rough sleepers – desperate people on park benches or waiting for hostel places for the night. Talk to the homeless and you will hear the sad stories of family break up, mental health problems, alcohol and drug dependency, former soldiers and young people trying to survive. You will also find paperless asylum seekers being fed by churches and mosques or going to food banks trying to survive.

Go to any council or housing association estate and generally they are well run and modernised thanks to the huge spending on decent homes standards by the last government. But the flats are often over-crowded, with children under-achieving due to lack of space for homework or getting a good night’s sleep.

CorbynJMy borough, Islington, is facing the problems faced by most London boroughs. In our case 40% of the housing is local authority or housing association, around 30% is owner occupied and the remainder is in the private rented sector. Our council is doing its best to build more homes and has a very creditable programme of new development and, in some cases, sharing sites or development with housing associations. As Islington has made it a very strict policy to retain the social rent affordable model, rather than the Government’s aim to raise them to 80% of market rents, the homes are within means and of course benefit levels. The council, to its credit, insists on this in all shared projects with housing associations as it does provide permanent lifetime tenancies.

The problem, as with all of London, is that there is insufficient council or housing association stock to house those in priority need so they are placed in the private rented sector and almost always well away from the borough. All central London boroughs place people outside their own boundaries and some well outside London.

Beyond that there are hundreds of families in each borough who live in the private rented sector whose rent is rising inexorably and well beyond the housing allowance level and even beyond the global benefit cap. So families face destitution as they use up their tax credits or benefits on rent, not food or children’s clothing. We have a housing allowance system that is a massive transfer of public money to the private landlords.

There are two areas of solution.

As long as the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition is in office it will not invest enough in council housing. To defend living standards and try to promote good housing, councils should build all they can and aggressively use planning laws to insist on levels of “social renting” in all major developments. Sadly this does not apply on small sites and not at all where student housing is constructed (often unaffordable for students anyway) or where offices are converted into housing. Additionally councils can try their own regulation through municipally run lettings agencies in the private rented sector.

This is welcome but not sufficient. We need a Labour Government committed to ensure everyone is housed as of right. From that principle we then move to two essential policy areas.

Firstly, a massive house building programme for council homes with social rents, permanent tenancies and even better environmental and energy efficient standards. This would provide jobs, new homes and help young people achieve in their own communities – rather than having to move at the end of six month tenancies.

Post World War One there was rent regulation in the private sector. This was reduced and almost disappeared but the Wilson Labour governments of the ‘60s and ‘70s re-introduced rent controls and tenants’ rights to long tenancies. In the ‘80s Thatcher destroyed all that and went on a right-to-buy bonanza. The New Labour Government did little to build, nothing to control rents and preferred market answers and owner-occupation. We need regulation of letting agents, long tenancies and rent control in the private sector. It is now 17% of all households and will be at least 25% over the next decade.

In London we are at crisis point and rent regulation is a popular cause. My bill, Regulation of the Private Rented Sector, comes up again on February 25. While not likely to become law it does provide a good start for a new policy.

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