Housing: not just statistics – a human tragedy

I’ve campaigned on housing issues ever since my days years ago as a Westminster Councillor and Labour Group leader, when we exposed  Dame Shirley Porter’s infamous “ homes for votes” policy, branded by the courts as the greatest act of local  government corruption of the last century.

Many people remember the news headlines: but I saw with my own eyes the human cost in my own Council ward and throughout Westminster. Porter’s instruction to the council officers was to be “mean and nasty” to the homeless: and indeed they were. Homeless people were housed in asbestos ridden tower blocks (another scandal we exposed) or deported miles away out of London, to condemned prefabs in Essex and even further afield. Decent, ready to let flats were boarded up until they could be sold off to the highest bidder, whilst my residents were suffering in overcrowded homes.

Too often, we talk of the housing crisis in London in terms of statistics, but each number is a human tragedy. I’ve  lost count of the number of people I saw in my advice surgery or whom I met on my constituency rounds in my 28 years as a councillor and as an MP,  seeking my help to resolve their personal housing crisis. The three generations  of one family, crammed into one flat, where the kids couldn’t do their homework as there was nowhere for them to study in quiet. The lone parent with black mould on her walls, whose children had developed asthma or bronchitis as a result. The tower block tenants who were wet through when the rain sheeted in through their rotten windows. So when I argue for housing, I do it with a passion borne out of my first hand witnessing of these kind of conditions and worse,  in which  no-one should be forced to exist.

That’s why, when I chaired the London Labour MPs’ parliamentary group for 9 years, I was so demanding of my MP colleagues in our  campaign for housing investment for our capital as Frank Dobson  MP and Karen Buck MP  say in their endorsements of my candidature for your nomination and why I am also backed by Glenda Jackson MP and  those redoubtable housing campaigners, Andy Slaughter MP and Clive Efford MP.

I am absolutely convinced that it is one of the prime duties, if not the prime duty, of any elected politician to ensure that the people he or she represents have a decent and affordable roof over their heads.

Now the Tory gerrymandering of Shirley Porter is back with a vengeance, as the Conservatives are trying to change the very population of our two boroughs. They are changing the mix and fabric of our communities, by ensuring that planning controls do not require a fair share of affordable homes.  Slashing housing benefit to force the less well off out of Camden into Barnet. And the less well off in Barnet out of London altogether. Already Barnet landlords are predicting rent increases as a result of the benefit cuts! Shirley Porter’s dream of deporting the poor is again becoming a reality under the Tory led Coalition, Tory Mayor of London, and whilst Camden Councillors do their best with woefully inadequate powers to stem the tide, Tory Barnet councillors are complicit in their Government’s “mean and nasty” housing policies.

Having fought off Shirley Porter’s evil regime I have no intention of standing by and letting the same thing happen all over again!

So what is to be done, when the Conservatives have cut so much from London’s housing budget?  We need more homes. We need more decent homes in good repair. And we need homes people can afford.

Targets for affordable and social homes

For many, especially in today’s housing market, the crisis means we must increase the availability of social rented housing. Things will get worse, as housing benefit is cut and new social tenancies do not have security. Over 350,000 households, almost 10 per cent of the total in London, are on a local authority waiting list, up from 179,000 ten years ago. Barnet Council has the worst record in the country, which is why it’s abolished its waiting list altogether, and changed its lettings system for the few properties that come available.

When Boris Johnson dumped Ken Livingstone’s eminently sensible targets for affordable and social homes in any major development, he abolished the hopes of thousands of families for a decent roof over their head. So first and foremost, I will campaign to bring back those targets to force developers to play their part in building affordable homes for ordinary people. We especially need to specify social housing of a family size, in all developments needing GLA approval.

Housing benefit

The Housing Benefit cap the Government is imposing on people in private rented homes will especially hit lower income Londoners, and older and disabled people in Camden and in Barnet. Many will be forced out of their homes or deeper into poverty. That’s why I have been challenging Barnet Council time and again to come clean on their estimates of the impact.

A large proportion of those affected are in work. From being economically active people, they will lose their livelihoods, their children their schools, their families their friends.

So I will fight for accessible and fair regulation of private rents to ensure a reasonable deal for tenants, including young people’s rented homes, especially for students, many of whom are new to London. At times of increased pressure on the private sector, we need a tough approach to rogue landlords too, who fail to maintain their properties.

Decent Homes

The Labour Government’s Decent Homes initiative was a well-intentioned attempt to sort out decades of underinvestment in repairs and modernisation, but Barnet Council woefully mismanaged the £88.5 million allocated to them by the Labour Government. Through poor contracting, they ran out of money.

It was wrong to make decent homes in Camden conditional on an ALMO. Although this may work for Tory controlled Barnet with their disinterest in council housing, Camden tenants should have been treated equally without discrimination for wanting to stay with the Council.

So I will campaign with you for the resources to end the backlog of major repair works and complete the Decent Homes programme with decent standards for social homes into the future.

Housing associations

When they first began, housing associations were local and small, aimed to develop homes for local people. Over the decades many have become huge businesses, social enterprises in name but not necessarily in nature or conduct, far too remote from, and unaccountable to, the tenants they serve. I will  encourage greater involvement of tenants and residents in running their homes, and fight to democratise housing associations, including backing  mutual and

co-operative housing projects as housing associations originally were intended to be.

Regeneration schemes

Nearly every one of the major schemes in Barnet has been stalled for years, as the Council dithers over the decisions, with one eye over their shoulder at the likely voting intentions of the new residents that would take up the planned new homes. At the same time they have ignored the needs of, and impact on, the neighbouring communities and the pressures on local infrastructure and resources, like roads and schools. I will keep up the pressure on them to get on with building these new homes and also to ensure that the existing properties which will be around for many years, are made fit to live in.

Investment in housing

The Conservative led Government’s cuts to Labour’s plans for London housing investment of £400m and have led to a complete standstill for new public housing.

I will fight with our Labour London Mayor for the powers to get things moving, including an expanding council house building programme through the ability to raise funds for housing. This requires the release of publicly-owned land to provide affordable homes in mixed developments. Councils must be empowered to borrow against their assets and to build homes again, forming joint ventures as necessary. This requires authority to use private capital including bonds.

Private homes kept empty

There are tens of thousands of empty properties throughout London in the private sector. Often, they are properties inherited when an aged parent passes on, and the next generation cannot decide to part with what was a family home, whilst its condition slowly deteriorates as it lies empty. Others are bought up by speculators to make a profit. Either way, I will work to find ways of bringing into use these neglected homes, in what can be a major and speedy contribution to addressing the housing shortage in our boroughs and in London as a whole.

Thank you for reading this letter. I hope my deep passion and interest for housing issues has come through, as well as the ideas I have to get things moving on the housing front.

I hope I can count on your vote for Andrew Dismore in the forthcoming  nomination ballot for Barnet and Camden’s candidate to fight our GLA seat.