This morning I joined MPs from across London for a debate in Westminster Hall on Housing in London where I brought up the outrage of Mount Pleasant. Land formerly owned by the public, sold off for a song, where the developers now want to build 88% luxury flats. Only wanting to offer 12% affordable housing!
Both Jeremy Corbyn and I spoke at the debate and raised the issue of luxury flats being built in Islington and being sold off to foreign owners who then leave them empty. Jeremy highlighted Archway Towers in the north of the borough, a large office block which is being converted in flats and not a single one will be affordable.
No Tories or Liberals attended the debate was presumably because they were staying at home in solidarity with the RMT. Others have suggested thought that it was down to their appalling record on tackling the housing crisis.
People on average and low incomes in London are being pushed out of Islington. What kind of society are we going to be left with when people who have lived their whole lives in Islington are forced to scatter across outer London? Our community will die, we see it dying in front of our faces but we have to fight it!
We appeal to the government to listen to what we say here today. We appeal to them to invest in social housing and to give up their ridiculous ‘affordable’ rents policy.”
Labour has a plan to deal with our housing crisis. A Labour Government would build 200,000 new homes a year, scrap the bedroom tax and clamp down on rogue landlord and Islington Council has committed to build 2000 new social houses.
Here’s my speech:
I begin by saying what a shame it is that for the past five years the Mayor of London has refused to meet the leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, that we have a strike on today, and how difficult it must have been for London Members to arrive in time for this debate. Presumably-the Hansard writers can put that I am being mildly sarcastic here-that must be why we have no Tories or Liberals in Westminster Hall to speak in this debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) on securing this debate, which is on one of the most important issues that any Londoner faces. Indeed, for London and the south-east, this seems to be a pivotal point, in terms of how housing impacts on people’s lives. Politics ought to be about what impacts on people’s lives, so politics in London and the south-east probably starts with housing; I know it does in my constituency. In fact, when I was first selected as a candidate for Islington South and Finsbury, my predecessor, Chris Smith, asked me, “What do you know about housing?” I said, “I don’t know anything.” He said, “Well, you will, because it is your duty to reflect the interests of your constituents, and politics begins and ends with housing in Islington.”
There is the smugness of Islington dinner parties where people sit around and talk about how much their properties have gone up in value; indeed, the property I live in has gone up eight times in value in the 22 years I have lived there. It was nice to start with-people look at the price and think, “Gosh, I’ve made all this money”-but then their children grow up and they wonder, “Where will they live? How will our family be able to ensure that our children live near us?”
We are the privileged ones. Imagine what it must be like to be a third or fourth-generation working-class family from Islington, looking at their children and wondering not whether they will live in Islington, because obviously they will not, but how far away they will have to live. Will they be able to help look after mum at the weekends? Will the family essentially be split up completely? We have seen too many families in Islington split up, and that trend is accelerating. We see the little amounts of land that we do have being used for developments that are sold off-plan and kept empty.
We need to look with clear eyes at what kind of London we want. I accept that London is the best place in the world to live. Of course if someone had any money, they would buy in London, but they should live here as well, and not just invest in London and keep the properties empty. There are plenty of Londoners and London families who want to stay in London. We want to protect the sort of city that we have, and not have an empty shell of a place where there are no lights on in the evenings, no one votes and no one gets involved.
It is not even as though my constituents come out and vote Tory. The gerrymandering that may be happening in my constituency is a hollowing out of engagement in the community. People have a pad in Islington as their second home, whether they normally live in the country or in Singapore, having bought a property for their baby daughter who might do a degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 20 years’ time; they keep those properties empty until that time. They might rent them out, but not to people who become engaged in the community.
In the meantime, I have constituents coming to me day after day on these issues. Whenever I speak about housing in Islington, to ensure that I can never be accused of exaggerating, I only ever speak about my last housing case. I suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) does that. My last housing case was a young woman called Sarah. She has two children: a four-year-old and a six-month-old baby. She came with her mum, who lives about a quarter of a mile away and helps look after the four-year-old, because of the baby. Sarah is in temporary accommodation; her rent is £500 a week. She gets a discretionary housing payment of more than £160 a week from the local authority to help pay her rent and to keep body and soul together, but that assistance will run out, and she will be hit by the benefit cap. That means that she will be getting £500 a week in benefits and paying £500 a week in rent. What does she do?
Her family has lived in Islington for generations. Her mum and the rest of the family are up in arms about it. She is on the housing waiting list in Islington, but so are 17,000 other people. Where does she go? How far away is she expected to move? She cannot work. It is all very well for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to say, “People like that ought to work.” Sarah said, “If I was working at the moment, Emily, I would be on maternity leave. I’ve got a six-month-old baby.” Can the Minister tell me where she is supposed to go when the money runs out at the end of March?
There used to be almost 12,000 people on the housing waiting list in Hammersmith, but the council abolished the waiting list. That gives a lovely cover for selling off council homes as they become empty. I have a letter from one of my constituents who has been told that the flat next door is being sold by auction by Savills next Monday. Hundreds of empty properties are being sold by the council when there is chronic housing need.
The Mayor of London’s solution to this problem is affordable rents, which gives us all a hollow laugh in areas such as mine, where a three-bedroom flat would be £600 a week. If the rent was genuinely affordable, we would say, “All right then, pay housing benefit on it.” If we paid housing benefit at 80% of market rent in Islington, we would blow the Department for Work and Pensions budget within a few months; that would simply not be affordable, unless someone was a banker or in charge of an investment fund. I looked today on Rightmove, and the cheapest three-bedroom flat has a rent of £370 a week. A family of five living in that three-bedroom flat would have £130 for the entire family to live on.
We must look at having real social housing and real affordable housing in my area, but where will that come from? One place it used to come from was housing associations. They used to build in Islington and across London, and there used to be a proper subsidy from the Government to assist housing associations in building, but the social housing grant has been slashed. I spoke to the chief executive of one of my local housing associations about that last week. He said that he used to have a business plan, under which he knew that for every pound invested, he would get a pound from the Government to build social housing. He now gets about 20% of that, and the Government’s answer is, “Put the rents up to affordable rents.” So it goes on.
People on average and low incomes in Islington are being pushed out. We will simply end up with a society that is rich, semi-detached and not involved in the community, and the community will die. It is dying in front of us and we have to fight that. We appeal to the Government-although the Minister is not listening to me-to listen to what we are saying: invest in real social housing, give up on the nonsense of affordable rent and tell Boris Johnson that that is no solution. We must find a real solution and we must have a plan. The Opposition have a plan: a Labour Government will build 200,000 homes every year. The question is whether the people of Islington can wait until 2015 for that.
There is the outrage of Mount Pleasant, which is the biggest development site in my constituency. It used to be owned by the public, through Royal Mail. It was sold off for a song, and guess what: the developers are not satisfied with having got the land for hardly any money at all. They want the development to be 88% luxury flats. Imagine the killing they will make from that. The developers will provide 12% affordable housing, but who knows what that means. I know what the development means: my constituents yet again sold short by money grabbers who are allowed to get away with it. No one stands up to them, and if Boris Johnson allows that, he will not be forgiven.