Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
The full text of Emily’s speech:
There are some areas of the country -; and my constituency is an obvious example -; where there is a serious mis-match between earnings and housing costs. The average worker in my constituency takes home less than £20,000 a year, and the average rent for a 2-bedroom flat in Inner North London (NOT the most expensive part of my constituency) is just over £17,000 a year. This would leave the average working single parent with less than £60 a week for food, clothes, travel or council tax.
It is clear, therefore, that in areas where rents are high some intervention is needed to make housing affordable. There are two main methods we could adopt to enable my average constituent and her average child to afford to live in an average Islington flat -; either we can provide social housing to rent at an affordable level, or we can subsidise tenants via housing benefit to help them afford rents on the private market.
As I’m sure everyone here will know by now, my preference is to provide more social rented housing. It seems to me that we should be encouraging local authorities to make the best possible use of their exsiting housing stock, to build new homes and to put empty homes back into use. We should be encouraging housing associations to do the same, and we should be ensuring that private developers are not allowed to get away with providing only luxury flats on the few scarce brownfield sites still available in central London.
Islington Council’s record on planning approvals over the past few years, under the previous Lib Dem administration has been a disgrace -; only one in six of the flats built here has been for social rent. It is disappointing to say the least to see the excellent work undertaken by Ken Livingstone’s regime towards a 50% affordable housing target across London falling away under a Tory Mayor and -; now -; a Tory/LibDem Government.
If we were able to provide good quality social rented homes for all the people who need them, most people in work would not need to claim housing benefit at all, and those out of work would need to claim much less than they do now. The housing benefit budget could be slashed and everyone would be happy.
However, we have to be realistic -; many of these people in need will not be able to get a social rented home, and they will not be able to afford a full market rent, and the housing benefit scheme is needed to help them manage. Whenever I start talking about the hardships we face in London -; one of the world’s most expensive cities -; I feel a strange sense of déjà vu. The arguments I have provided to IPSA about why London MPs cannot afford office rent and business rates because these cost twice as much as elsewhere in the country are mirrored by the arguments I have provided on the need for more help with childcare costs in London, and, today, more help with rent payments in London.
I met a constituent recently who was paying £750 a week for a damp, 3-bedroom flat in poor repair for herself and her 3 children above a shop in the Caledonian Road. To be able to afford the flat and feed herself and the children she would need to be earning a gross salary at the MP level -; not as much as the prime minister, and a lot less than some civil servants, but still a lot more than she could realistically ever manage to earn. So my constituent is not working at all, and housing benefit is paying over £700 a week for her grotty accommodation. Whilst she can see that the landlord is exploiting her, and exploiting the housing benefit budget, she has been unable to find another landlord willing to accept her and the three children, and at least she is providing a roof of some kind over their heads.
However, my constituent will not be able to live in her present home much longer. Although what she is paying is well within the median rent for a 3-bedroom property in the south of my constituency, it appears that the new government wants to target her and others like her to cut costs, and her housing benefit is likely to be cut in half very soon. Her landlord will presumably evict her, and she and the children will become homeless through no fault of their own. What will happen to them? Will social housing suddenly spring up to accommodate them? Or will Islington Council have to find them a hostel or bed-and-breakfast hotel? Or will they end up sleeping on the streets?
My point here is firstly that this is not going to happen to families in Bradford or Leeds -; their rent will continue to be covered by housing benefit. Once again, the urge to make easy headlines by imposing across the board figures regradless of local circumstances and local needs will make life really, really hard for London’s poorest families -; whilst leaving families in other parts of the country relatively unscathed. This is so unfair.
Out of 850 Islington families in flats with 2 or more bedrooms who are currently claiming Local Housing Allowance, (HB for private landlords) more than half -; over 500 families -; will lose benefits under the capping rules. Many stand to lose over £100 a week, and they will presumably have to give up their homes. Where will they go? And secondly -; get the social engineering the right way round. These cuts are a kneejerk reaction to the fact that we are spending over £20bn a year on housing benefit -; not a sensible way of addressing the reasons why all these people -; single people, families, pensioners -; need to claim this vast amount of money in the first place.
Build more social housing that people can afford out of average incomes, and you will cut the housing benefit budget in half with very little pain. That’s the way we maximise scarce resources and give a fair deal to those in all parts of the country who need a bit of help. Build enough affordable rented housing to meet my constituents’ needs, and then cut the housing benefit budget.
I was speaking to a constituent last week who has been living on a local Council estate for the past 30 years. She came from an established Finsbury family. Her oldest daughter is now 22, and working as a receptionist in the local doctor’s surgery -; a nice job, and congratulations to her for getting it, but not well paid. On local pay rates she would expect to take home around £220 a week for full-time -; enough to live comfortably with Mum and Dad, or enough to rent a flat in Bradford (Local Housing Allowance for a 1-bed self-contained £86 a week), but not enough to rent a flat in south Islington (local housing allowance for one bed flat £250 a week).
I really wish we were able to build affordable social rented homes to give London girls like this a reasonable chance of a home of their own.
However, I suspect that my call to build more affordable homes -; even though this is a sustainable solution to an intractable problem -; will fall on deaf ears opposite. So if you’re not going to do the sensible, sustainable thing, at least think a bit harder about what the proposed cuts would mean for Londoners.
Once again, I feel like I am making a very obvious point when I say that expecting housing beenfit claimants to live in the cheapest 30% of private rented flats is going to cause real hardship in areas like London, where housing is in such short supply. The differential between the median and the 30th percentile may be very small in some areas -; less than £6 a week for a 2 bedroom flat in central Lancashire, for example -; where you can currently get a family home for less than £120 a week. But the for an Islington 2 bedroom flat, the difference between the median and the 30th percentile is £40 a week -; the difference between £330 and £290 a week. It is fundamentally unfair to expect claimants in my constituency to make up a Housing Benefit gap of £40 a week, when claimants elsewhere are only going to need to find £6 a week. Expecting all private tenants to compete for the cheapest properties will mean that some will lose out altogether -; landlords will presumably choose the tenants they find most acceptable, and those with mental health problems, or with children, will find it increasingly difficult to compete for the relatively scarce properties available in the cheapest bands.
How can this be fair?
Finally, I am appalled by the suggestion that we should punish the long term unemployed by cutting their housing benefit by 10%. I’m sorry to sound like a stuck record, but 10% of a London rent of £250 for a one-bed flat is £25, almost half that claimant’s JSA. 10% of a Bradford claimant’s £86 is £8.60 -; less than a fifth of that claimant’s JSA.
How can that be fair?
And this rule will affect large numbers of people in the most deprived areas of London. I understand that there are currently over 1200 Islington residents who have been living on Jobseekers Allowance or Incapacity Benefit for over a year -; they stand to lose anything from £8 to £35 a week under this rule. It is hard enough being out of work for a long time -; painful, sad, demoralising. The idea that my constituents actually enjoy not having to work is really insulting -; at every surgery I talk to people who are desperate to work but who cannot find a job. So it is a bit sickening to see that projects like Future Jobs Fund, which were there specifically to stop young people from ever having to be employed for a whole year, have been the first to go under this uncaring, visionless government.
So -; build affordable housing, provide sensible pathways to work, support families through child tax credits and child benefit.
Social engineering, yes, but positive, and sustainable. Do all this well, and housing benefit will eventually wither on the vine. Or take a short-term pop at the poorest, most vulnerable Londoners -; back to the days of a rough sleeper in every doorway and children living six to a room in sleazy hotels.
Is this really what we want?