Why isn’t Boris coming up with any solutions to London’s housing crisis?


By Jenny Jones AM, leader of the Green Party on the London Assembly

The terrible headlines about our housing crisis didn’t come as a surprise, they’re depressingly predictable. When I charted the failure (pdf) of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson to deliver London’s housing last year, I found many of the same problems described in the Pro-Housing Alliance report on London’s housing crisis.

London-skyline-problems-of-housing-in-LondonThe alliance’s recommendations show they are solutions. In fact, if you look at one problem – the terrible state of many private rented homes – you don’t have to look far to see them being taken seriously.

Newham council have piloted “selective licensing”, where they force all landlords in a specified area to be licensed.

This enabled them to enforce health and safety regulations and take bad landlords out of business. They now want to roll this out across the whole borough.

This is important because problems crop up across the market, from vulnerable, poor tenants to well-off professionals trying to raise a family. Too many tenants either put up with bad conditions and bad landlords or just move on, worried that if they raise any problems they’ll be given notice to leave.

This practice, called “retaliatory eviction”, is sadly familiar to many people renting privately. But the government refuses to look seriously at this problem.

In other countries there is specific legal protection against retaliatory eviction, and the basic private tenancy agreement is much longer – see the appendices of this handy report (pdf).

In Ireland, for example, after six months a tenant gets an automatic extension of three-and-a-half years and the landlord has to give a specific reason to evict. In the UK after six months your landlord can boot you out with two months notice, and they don’t need to give a reason.

The government’s main response to this crisis has been to tear up planning regulations. This will do little (pdf) to increase supply to the levels the Pro-Housing Alliance demand, or to reduce land values so making homes cheaper to buy and build. Nor will it deal with poor conditions or security of tenure.

It will probably just lead to poor quality homes with small rooms in sprawling car-dependent suburbs.

When I was young, back in the 50s, councils were in full post-war swing building their own housing in response to the problems of poor condition, high prices and bad landlords. I have happy memories of growing up in a council house with a nice big garden front and back, a secure tenancy and a rent my parents could afford.

In fact, as Graph 1 shows, in the last 60 years the only time we’ve really built large numbers of houses was when councils built up to half of them. This increased the capacity of the whole construction sector, brought forward land and housed millions.

When this stopped, the private sector never filled the gap.

Graph 1:

House-building-in-the-UK-1955-2010
But today, council houses are seen by many young people as an anachronism, something for poor single mothers and the homeless. I have long lobbied the Mayor of London and his predecessor to build more council and housing association homes.

Why can’t rented council and co-operative housing become a tenure of choice again?

One of the Pro-Housing Alliance’s recommendations is to introduce a tax on land values. This would do much more to depress the price of land than a bonfire of planning regulations, making housing more affordable and new development cheaper. It could also raise billions to invest in new public housing.

Another solution they propose is the Community Land Trust model. This is a kind of co-operative that can offer permanently affordable home ownership. They enable people to take a long-term stake in a home of their own without the prices rising faster than incomes.

I have spent three frustrating years tracking the Mayor’s lack of progress on delivering one in London. Last year I published a short report (pdf) pressing him to take some simple steps to make it happen, and take the idea mainstream.

The Mayor urgently needs to call on the government to radically reform tenure and taxation, and to restore a realistic housing budget that can deliver the high quality homes and communities we need.

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  • Anon E Mouse

    Because of the last Labour government’s open borders policy towards immigration having flooded the capital with extra people it means no one can get on top of it.

    Remember too that the last government presided over less housebuilding than any government in history (certainly in the last 70 years) and you can see the problem.

    If less people were here we wouldn’t need so many houses. It’s not rocket science….

  • Dave Citizen

    Taxes on empty, or mostly empty ‘investment’ properties should clearly be introduced. How can it be in the country’s interests to have working people homeless or existing in poor standard rented accommodation while good properties lie empty as safe assets for idle owners, many of them overseas individuals or companies. Building land is limited so we need to be happy to own one or two homes max – renting should be strictly controlled and adequate taxes paid or let someone else have a go.

    It’s absolutely disgraceful that Boris and co do not publish data on property ownership showing what properties are foreign owned, which are empty for much or all of the year and most importantly, the UK taxes paid by each company or individual that owns UK property other than their own home.

  • Leon Wolfeson

    Ah yes, Anon E Troll, that old chestnut. Which a cursory glance at the numbers shows is completely untre, but your racist xenophobia is more important to you than any stinking *numbers*.

    What next, you propose shooting the poor en-mass to reduce the population and free up houses?

    @2- While I can’t support limits on how many houses people own, there should certainly be rent boards again, and high tax on empty houses and unusued brownfield land. But that wouldn’t suit the Tory ethnic clensing agenda.

  • George McLean

    @1

    I think you’ll find that should be “If fewer people were here …”. If you can’t speak English properly, perhaps you shouldn’t be here.

  • timple

    The short term tenancy gave landlords tremendous rights with few responsibilities. They are the ones with the long term stake in the community and if there are problems with a tenancy they should have clear responsibilities. I am talking about maintenance, upkeep, noise etc. In what other business can the landlord turn round and say ‘nothing to do with me, talk to my customers?

  • Leon Wolfeson

    @5 – Exactly. To use my constant example; Landlords can install expensive meters and insist tennants use them, even when they can’t get the bill anyway. And they can refuse to allow energy-saving measures to be installed.

  • Dave Citizen

    Why not extend the right to buy to the private rented sector – that would force landlords to rent good homes at reasonable rates….??

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  • Leon Wolfeson

    Among other issues, it would lead to evictions before people had enough years to quality and would be hopelessly complex in, for example, shared rented housing.

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  • Dave Citizen

    Fair points Leon – the suggestion was somewhat tongue in cheek!

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