Ask people why they love living in London and they’re likely to tell you it’s because it’s such a mixed place, with people from all over the world and from all kinds of backgrounds living on top of each other. In central London our communities are especially mixed, with affluent owner-occupiers living side by side with more deprived housing estates...
There was a time when many of my better off constituents would sit complacently around their dinner tables, talking about the rise in house prices. But many now find themselves equally worried about the way this relentless rise is undermining our community as a whole. They now ask same question as some of my poorest constituents – where are our children going to live?
These days we find ourselves faced by another five years of a Tory government which, frankly, seems determined to rid inner London – and in fact probably outer London too – of everyone on a low income. This may sound extreme, so let me explain.
It begins with benefit caps. The first cap on poorer families’ benefits came in 2011, when the last government capped the Local Housing Allowance. This resulted in large cuts to housing benefit for private tenants and forced many people in inner London, where rents are the highest, to move to outer London. In Islington, for example, an estimated 1,000 families were forced to move away by this policy.
Next the Tories introduced another cap, which didn’t just limit subsidies for rent, but went much further by limiting the total amount of income a family could receive from benefits. Again, the worst effects of the household cap were concentrated in areas with high private sector rents, and larger families were the hardest hit.
One of my constituents, who had to move with his wife and daughter to temporary accommodation after being made homeless, was forced to pay £445 a week, leaving the family with just £55 a week to live on. Another constituent, a single mother of five, was left with literally nothing after her £500 weekly rent had been paid. Boris Johnson was quite right to describe caps like these as social cleansing of the worst kind.
It is perfectly clear that driving these exceptionally high housing costs is the failure of successive governments, over several decades, to tackle the housing crisis at its root by building the affordable homes that Londoners need. It is entirely unfair to blame the tenants for these high costs.
The Tories are promoting this lie that suggests that there are all these people with flat screen TVs, driving around Knightsbridge in their Mercedes, because they are claiming more than the average wage in benefits. But the truth is that they’re living on almost nothing, because most of this money goes straight to their landlords. As I argued in the debate which followed the Queen’s speech last month, it isn’t that £500 a week is not enough for families in Islington to live on. It’s that it isn’t enough for their landlords to live on.
Benefit caps are not the only explanation for the mass exodus of poor families from central London. Even those not subject to the benefit cap feel the squeeze of high private sector rents constantly, because the government’s housing policy remains completely inadequate to meeting the demand for new – and genuinely affordable – homes.
As things currently stand, privately rented housing is so costly in Islington that we often say that affordable housing, for practically anyone, means social housing. Unless a group of young people pool three or more incomes, the private sector is simply not an option.
The truth is that, in Islington, even if you do earn the average wage, the chances are you need to claim in-work benefits, like tax credits and housing benefit, to top up your wages in any case. And in my borough, we still don’t have enough social housing. Like the rest of London, we have a housing crisis.
And despite the best efforts of the local council to build the homes Islington needs, demand is just too high with more than 19,000 on the waiting list. Under the last government this was compounded by changes which allowed developers to bypass their obligations to provide social housing by focussing instead on the so-called “affordable rent” model, which, at up to 80% of market rents, is nothing of the kind.
This crisis is set to take a turn for the even worse because of the latest government policies. Not content to just slash the affordable housing subsidy by 60%, which the last government did in George Osborne’s first spending review, the Tories continue their assault on the social housing sector. The new government has announced plans to extend the Right to Buy to Housing Association tenants, at huge discounts of upwards of £100,000 in London, promising not that they will be replaced like for like, but that each property sold will be replaced by an “affordable” home. And we all know what that means.
The Tories say the Right to Buy extension will be funded in part by forcing councils to sell off their highest value properties. The fact is that the unbelievable boom in house prices over recent years, meaning that homes which were not worth much just a few years ago may be worth a great deal more now. London housing, yet again, will have to take it on the chin.
In fact analysis has shown that in Islington, the effect of this change will be that one third of all the properties that become available for re-let each year will be lost, because they will be too valuable to be deemed as social housing, and will therefore be sold off to the highest bidder instead of being re-let to a family in desperate need.
Given all the other caps and squeezes of the last five years, lowering the benefit cap to £23,000, as the Tories have pledged to do, may not have its worst effects in inner London, although it’s likely the effects will extend to social tenants, especially those with larger families. The greatest impact is likely to be felt in the outer boroughs, where low-income private renters will likely be pushed out of London altogether.
I always remember the women I’ve met outside the school gates in Islington – many of them single mothers with two or three kids – who have already been pushed out of Islington by these policies. But they’ve kept commuting for hours every day to keep their sons and daughters at school in the borough they’ve grown up in, hoping against hope that they will be able to come back one day.
Mostly they moved to the outer boroughs – places like Bromley, Croydon or Enfield – where housing costs were not quite so extreme. But now that the cap will be lowered, hitting the outer boroughs in the same way Islington was hit by the initial cap two years ago, where will they end up?
Wherever they are, these families will certainly find themselves isolated from the communities they’ve always known, and the support from family members that many families depend on when it comes to child care, for example. But my greatest fear is that wherever they end up could be less welcoming than Islington was. After all, we never wanted these families to leave. But with a government that pulled the rug out from under their feet, there was little we could do to stop it.
So extreme as it may sound, I cannot see any way to look at this other than to conclude that the Tories are either wilfully blind to the consequences of their policies, or that they are simply determined to purge London altogether of its poorest families and leave our once-mixed communities unrecognisable.
It is vital that Labour take this opportunity to put forward, as strongly and clearly as possible, the arguments to expose these cruel policies for what they are. When we talk about the people affected by benefit caps, we’re talking about people born and brought up in our communities. Often they’re people who fall in and out of work due to circumstances beyond their control. We should be standing up for these people, not pushing them away. Now is the time for Labour to bring forward positive solutions to the underlying, systemic housing crisis in London, not blame its victims. We must build, not just for ourselves but for our children.