10 years ago, when I first stood as Labour’s candidate in Islington South and Finsbury, the outgoing MP Chris Smith asked me how much I knew about housing policy. Not much, I admitted at the time. “You will”, he told me, and he was right.
It’s often been said that politics in Islington, in many ways, begins and ends with housing, and it’s not hard to see why. Despite the borough’s image of exclusivity – the stereotype that it’s all Georgian squares and cappuccino bars – the reality is much more complex. There is great wealth in our borough to be sure, but we also have the sixth highest level of child poverty in the UK, and 19,000 people on the waiting list for social housing.
The reasons for this are clear to see. The average house price in Islington is more than 17 times the average annual salary, putting home ownership out of reach for all but the wealthiest. Inevitably this forces many people into the increasingly unaffordable option of renting their home in the private sector. A widely recognised threshold of affordability, used by Shelter among others, is that housing costs should take up no more than 35% of a household’s take-home pay. But in Islington, the average rent for a two bedroom home in the private sector would take up 77% of your take-home pay on average earnings. That’s why, in making strenuous efforts to tackle the housing crisis locally, Islington Council has been clear that affordable housing, in practice, means social housing.
Faced with this crisis, the last five years have saddled our community with a Tory government that has done more, possibly than any government in history, to decimate the social housing sector. I’m not just talking about the abject failure to build new homes for social rent, although the staggering 90% fall in the number of social housing starts between 2009-10 and 2013-14 is certainly shameful. Far more sinister has been the Tories’ persistent efforts to undermine the social sector by imposing an Orwellian redefinition of affordability.
In his first spending review in 2010, George Osborne slashed the affordable housing subsidy by 60%. Because providers of social housing, including housing associations, have always depended so heavily on government subsidy, these cuts forced housing associations to make up the shortfall themselves.
As the same time that they cut off the funds, the government created a new way for housing associations to boost their incomes. From 2011, they were allowed to earmark new homes as “affordable” while charging rents of up to 80% of market rates. Compared to genuine social housing, with rents that are around 40% of market rates in Islington, this definition made a mockery of the very idea of genuinely affordable housing for low and middle income families.
Beyond imposing the “affordable” definition for new homes, the government also effectively forced housing associations to convert existing stock to the newer, higher rent model, as Affinity Sutton attempted to do with their Sutton Estate homes on Upper Street last year.
Thankfully, in that instance a coalition of local campaigners, including ward councillors and myself, was able to put a stop to the change. But unfortunately strenuous local opposition has not held back other housing associations from making the change across London and the rest of the UK – not by choice because dire financial straits have forced their hands.
Boris Johnson has aggressively pushed the new, higher rents in preference to new social housing. He has ridden roughshod over Islington council’s efforts to ensure that social housing should form a major part of redevelopment projects like Mount Pleasant, insisting instead that developers can meet their obligations to contribute affordable housing based on the 80% model. As I have pointed out to David Cameron at PMQs, this means that the Mayor has allowed public money to fund such “affordable” homes as a two bedroom “share to buy” flat in Pear Tree Court, which went on sale for £720,000. Affordable to whom, exactly?
As new figures from the GLA revealed earlier this year, since the “affordable” model was introduced by the Tories in 2011, London has seen some 11,000 social homes converted to “affordable” rents, costing tenants almost £50 million in rent increases over a three year period. The deeply disturbing figures serve as a clear illustration of trends that have increasingly forced low and middle income households to move away from the communities they have long called home.
Five years of Tory government has left those of us who believe in the vital role of social housing in building homes that are genuinely affordable for local people facing a frontal assault on councils’ and housing associations’ ability to meet the needs of their local communities. The combination of a steep fall in construction, swingeing cuts to government subsidies and massive increases in discounts under the Right to Buy, the UK has lost 63,000 more social rented homes than have been built in the last two years alone.
As the cost of living crisis – driven principally by the skyrocketing cost of housing – affects ever greater numbers of people, the challenge for the next government, if it is to be a government that’s serious about providing genuinely affordable homes for its citizens, will be to breathe new life into the social sector. Councils and housing associations have a vital role to play in meeting our housing crisis, and the choice on Thursday’s election is between a Labour government that recognises this challenge and has a plan to tackle it, or another five years of rule by a party that’s never missed an opportunity to undermine the very idea of affordable housing.