Sian Berry: We should be housing as many refugees as we possibly can

LFF speaks to the Green mayoral hopeful about housing, wages and solving London's pollution problem

 

In July Left Foot Forward hosted an online hustings with the Green Party’s London mayoral candidates. To follow up on this, I interviewed Camden councillor and winning candidate Sian Berry to talk about her plans for London. Here’s what she had to say.

On rent controls

“I’m fighting for an amendment [in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill] to allow for rent controls. It would have the power to bring in caps on rent rises, in or between tenancies like they have in Germany. [I also want to] redefine affordable housing according to local wages, not according to market prices. I’m trying to persuade MPs throughout London to support it.”

On housing redevelopment

“We’ll create a Community Homes Unit in City Hall to restore the balance up when housing developments take place and give the community the same level of expertise as developers and councils to redesign their own areas.

“At the moment what happens is developers and councils with big PR firms produce a load of nice drawings and lots of numbers and local communities are asked to just accept or reject a finished plan. They end up running quite negative campaigns against what is being proposed when actually they have a lot of good ideas themselves and just need help to create alternatives that are credible and viable.”

A tram for Oxford Street?

“The air pollution on Oxford Street is the worst in Europe. The people who work there, in shops or on stalls, are getting ridiculous levels of air pollution. What I want to do is clear the taxis and the buses from Oxford Street and use a tram to bridge that gap in the bus route.

“The shuttle tram is really compatible with pedestrians in terms of safety. And it’s cheap. I think we should buy second hand trams, as one of the things that’s held up tram projects around the country is the idea of getting a bespoke tram. I think we would probably be able to get second hand trams from somewhere like France – we’d only need a couple.

“I think the other thing is it has to be free. Even if you’re just shopping there you should be able to hop on it.”

On devolution

“I think housing policy [could benefit from further devolution]. All aspects of housing policy should be done at a London level, some at a council level. I think the mayor should be the one who sets the regional strategy and has control of all the projects.

“The Right to Buy and the forced sell off of council buildings – those do not work for London. Those are the worst policies for London, and the mayor should be able to say ‘they’re not appropriate for my area’. For London it’s disastrous – certainly in Camden it will do an awful lot of damage. What do they expect us to do? Our citizens will be forced out – it’s social cleansing.”

On refugees

“We’re only talking about tens of thousands – I definitely think London could cope. We are in lots of ways really well set up to deal with refugees – we have a very diverse population at the moment, we have a lot of language services, we have a lot of people who are immigrants who need support, we already look after a lot of people who are traumatised from torture. We have far better services for things like this than a village or rural town would.

“So [London]’s the right place for refugees to come. We should be housing as many of them as we possibly can.”

On where refugees could live

“We have a lot of closed fire and police stations, [as well as] loads of other place that maybe a have a hundred habitable rooms, office spaces,workshops, things like that, and there’s about eight people living there with others just acting as property guardians. London ought to be doing its bit [by housing refugees temporarily in these spaces].

“Did you know they have two parliaments in Europe, one in Brussels and one in Strasbourg? So once a month they go to the office in Strasbourg – it’s the biggest waste of money you’ve ever seen. There’s an entire parliament building in Strasbourg that they’re basically not using.”

On fighting for the Living Wage

“Not enough companies pay it. Lots of councils have signed up to be Living Wage councils but they’ve not pushed for Living Wage contracts very quickly.

“Did you see the Camden dinner ladies story recently? They unionised, fought really hard, bought loads of deputations to the council, and petitions to the government and fought to get the living wage brought into their contracts early. They weren’t going to sit there until 2018 being paid £6.30 an hour.

“The really annoying part of that was the company [also has workers in Islington] who had insisted that the Living Wage went into their contract early. So there were people doing the same job in different boroughs being paid £2.50 an hour difference. It was so unjust.

“It’s a case of political will, shaming people, showing companies that they’re the odd ones out, showing companies that they can pay the Living Wage, because they can do it. If there was a clear justification for paying low wages I’d maybe listen to it – but there’s not.”

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward

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