The Independent London Newspaper
23rd April 2017

FORUM: Defeat the Conservatives’ housing bill

    Keir Starmer

    Keir Starmer QC, the Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras

    Published: 8 January, 2016
    by KEIR STARMER

    ASK anyone in Camden what issue concerns them most and housing will almost always be top, or near the top, of the list. 

    The reason is obvious. Whether you want to buy, rent in the private market, or are a council or hous­ing association tenant, you probably have a problem. 

    I see this in each of my packed fortnightly advice surgeries: family after family desperately asking for my help, not uncom­mon­ly with mum, dad and up to three children all sharing one bedroom. 

    Intolerable; and with long-term implications for the health and develop­ment of children in our communities.

    But the pressure on Camden Council is acute. There were over 30,000 households on the housing register in Camden as at April 2015. 

    And with under 1,000 homes allocated each year, it is no wonder that many families needing a two-bedroom flat have to wait, on average, five years and four months before they get a successful allocation. 

    In the private sector the situation is equally critical. 

    House and flat prices are through the roof. Average house prices in Camden are £847,321, 68 per cent higher than even the Greater London average – a staggering 26.5 times the average Camden income of £32,000. 

    Average rent for a two-bedroom flat is £2,015 per month. 

    And the direction of travel is all one way: house prices have doubled in a decade; rents have risen 20 per cent in five years. 

    Whichever way you look at it, the lack of accommodation in Camden that people can actually afford is at crisis point. And the impact on all of us should not be underestimated. 

    We have some of the best schools and hospitals in the country in Camden, but they struggle to retain staff who simply cannot afford to live in the area. 

    The same goes for businesses large and small; again unable to retain local staff for want of housing they can actually afford.

    Picture: Oxyman

    Camden Council is committed to building new homes at rents that local people can actually afford but is forced to operate with one hand tied behind its back. What is needed, and has been needed for many years, is a bold, radical, and ambitious national housing strategy; a 20-year strategy which invests not only in building for the private sector, but which also values and invests in public housing, whether through council housing, housing associations or some other model; a strategy that discourages a market in which houses are seen as “assets” not “homes”; and a strategy that is bold enough to control rent increases. 

    The government’s Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16, before parliament again this week, is the polar opposite. 

    It will make a bad situ­ation worse by implemen­t­ing a “voluntary” right-to-buy deal struck with some housing associations allowing more affluent tenants to buy their rented property at a discount. 

    The result will not only be a further reduction in much-needed housing stock but also a punitive levy imposed on councils to pay for this extension of the right to buy scheme. 

    Camden Council fears having to sell a significant part of its much-needed housing stock to foot the bill. 

    Shelter has estimated that, across the country, up to 113,000 further council properties will have to be sold to pay the levy. 

    Anyone who thinks that is a good idea should come to my next advice surgery and look those desperate for better housing in the eye and tell them that they will have to wait even longer for their basic housing needs!

    The government argues that their “starter homes” programme, also in the housing and planning bill, which allows first-time buyers under 40 to buy at a discount of at least 20 per cent up to a value of £450,000 in London and £250,000 outside London is the answer. 

    I have no problem with schemes to help first-time buyers, but this scheme will only help those already earning enough to afford to buy on the open market. 

    Analysis by Shelter shows that families on the government’s “national living wage” will only be able to afford a starter home in 2 per cent of local authority areas. It is hardly a scheme to help working families and young people on low and middle incomes get a first foot in the housing market.

    The inescapable truth is that, by further depleting the stock of public housing and by failing to implement a genuinely affordable “starter home” scheme, the message from the government to those in Camden who are not well off is clear: move away. 

    That insults and demeans all of us. 

    If there is one thing that defines Camden, it is our inclusive, diverse and thriving communities, knitted together by a mix of private and public housing. 

    The housing and planning bill puts all that at risk. We must unite in a determined effort to defeat the bill and protect our communities.