Sunday, June 11, 2006

London's Housing Crisis

THE LABOUR Representation Committee last Monday organised a seminar at the House of Commons on the current housing crisis in London with a view to initiating a major broad campaign on the issue.
The seminar was chaired by Jeremy Corbyn MP and introduced by Austin Mitchell MP. He gave a summary of the causes behind the current shortage of housing and the rising house prices that have put home ownership way beyond the reach of most London workers.
Hardly any council houses are being built, so with a shortage of supply, prices inevitably rise.
“When Labour came to power in 1997, it prioritised spending on health and education. Shamefully, housing was neglected though it must be equally important. If children don’t have a decent home to live in they can’t benefit from education and poor housing damages people’s health.
“The Government estimated that it would cost £19 billion to bring Britain’s long-neglected council housing stock into a fit condition and decided that it could not afford the money in addition to the extra spending on health and education. “Incidentally, that £19 billion is what the London School of Economics reckons the identity card scheme will cost.
“So they told local authorities to raise the money themselves by selling off land or privatising council estates.
“They have had problems with this because tenants have consistently voted against having their estates sold off to the private sector, in spite of pressure and propaganda to accept.
“They’ve virtually been told, ‘Do you want us to sell the estate and get all your repairs and renovation done or do you want to rot in hell?’.
“But they still vote against privatisation. Prescott refuses to budge on the issue, insisting that councils must sell off their housing stock to get any money for renovation and repairs.
“And it’s not as if privatisation was cheaper. It costs at least £430 per dwelling in legal fees and then there’s the costs of all the propaganda.
“When houses are privatised, the new owners are free to sell them on as they fall vacant. And they fall into the higher cost sector. Those homes that are not privatised continue to decay.”
He went on to say that first time buyers now need a minimum joint income of between £38,000 and £40,000 a year. The term “affordable housing” is used a lot but it’s still unaffordable to most Londoners.
“The affordable housing policy is not working,” he said. “We need a real fall in prices and that means we need a major building programme.”
He warned that housing associations are now selling off their stock at market prices – reducing that amount of what is called “social housing”.
“There is still a war on council housing going on,” said Austin Mitchell, “This is a total failure of government.”
Marc Francis from the housing charity and pressure group Shelter pointed out that although there are now fewer people sleeping on the streets of London, there is still a lot of hidden homeless. Around 100,000 people are in emergency temporary accommodation.
“This hits families very hard,” he said. “Children in poor housing conditions suffer bad health and on average miss a quarter of the time they should be in school.
“Much of this temporary housing is a high rents and that creates a poverty trap. They cannot work themselves out of this because if their wages rise, they lose housing benefit. For every £1 extra they earn, they lose 80 pence in benefit cuts.”
He stressed that the most vulnerable – they very young and the very old – suffer most from being trapped in poor or inappropriate housing. Andrew Berry from Islington Unison read out a contribution from Rosemary Plummer, who could not attend because of illness. This statement covered the hidden homelessness in so many young people being unable to afford their own homes, remaining in their parents’ homes.
The Government scheme to help “key workers” – teachers, nurses, firefighters and so on – has been of some help to those categories. But Andrew added that Unison’s view is that every worker in London is a key worker: “How could London operate without its dustmen, its classroom assistants, its shop assistants, its catering workers. He added that even what is called “affordable” accommodation, and the low-cost joint-ownership schemes are still way beyond the reach of low paid workers.
Robert Taylor spoke on community involvement and democracy and how some local authorities seem to suffer from “consultationitis”. Whenever they want to do something, they launch a new consultation. They invite tenants to meetings, listen to them and then do what they were going to do anyway.
“Being consulted is very different from real power,” he said.
Pete Challis, a Greenwich councillor for over 30 years, who lost he seat by one vote to a Tory last month, told the seminar of the individual tragedies and heartbreak behind the statistics; of people in urgent need to transfer because of health conditions, stranded in high rise blocks and children packed into overcrowded homes.
He pointed out that most new building in London now is one or two-bedroom flats. Very few larger, family-size flats are being built and even fewer homes with gardens – and children need gardens.
Pete explained the iniquity of the current boom in profiteering from private sector buying to let, which in effect is subsidised by housing benefit because tenants cannot afford the full, high rents.
Piers Corbyn spoke of the decision to pull down London’s largest estate – the Aylesbury estate near the Elephant and Castle – and to replace it with private sector housing, without any consultation with the tenants on any aspect.
John McDonnell MP ended the seminar with a proposal to invite all the housing campaign groups, housing associations, charities and so on to a conference to draw up a list of campaigning demands – and then to launch a major campaign with a mass rally, perhaps at Westminster Central Hall. This was agreed unanimously.