Housing used to be one of the three pillars of the welfare state but is now viewed as a personal issue, not a collective one.
Last Thursday I attended a very interesting meeting on housing policy, hosted by the London Federation of Green Parties as part of the campaign to make Jenny Jones London’s next mayor.
On the panel were speakers from housing charity Shelter, the East London Community Land Trust, and the Camden Federation of Private Tenants whose speeches were followed by an hour of lively questions.
Rachel Orr from Shelter pointed out that housing used to be one of the three pillars of the welfare state but is now viewed as a personal issue, not a collective one. Unlike the punchy messages of the living wage or anti tuition-fee lobbies, housing lacks a ‘hook’ to campaign on, and a growing prejudice towards people on benefits doesn’t help.
Private tenancy in particular is a very individualised experience and one in which problems are solved by simply moving somewhere else. A sub-standard flat or unacceptable landlord behaviour is passed to the next tenants unchallenged and unchanged.
Robert Taylor from the Camden Federation of Private Tenants outlined this often overlooked area of housing that is highest in London, with 20.2% in the city compared to 12.7% in England renting privately (1990 figures). His Federation covers tenants of private landlords but surprisingly includes Housing Association tenants, and non-council leaseholders: If you bought your house leasehold but do not own the freehold then you are effectively renting, having pre-paid for an amount of years possibly beyond any lifetime. It is a question of self-identifying as a private tenant, Taylor says.
Conditions of private tenancies are often poor, with bad insulation and less central heating than average. This leads to energy inefficiency, fuel poverty, and even death from cold in harsh winters. Some of these could be addressed by the forthcoming Green Deal initiative, but it is too early to tell, and motivation of landlords is not there, as it is tenants who pay the bills.
All the speakers agreed that the entire housing industry needs regulation. Rachel Orr gave us the numbers from George Osborne’s emergency budget a year ago which have yet to be felt but she thinks London is already in a housing crisis and it’s going to get a lot worse.
One of the first questions from the audience was on an issue close to Lambeth Green Party’s heart and one I was eagerly waiting to be mentioned throughout: Empty homes. The responses were surprising.
The panel agreed that, while empty homes are a visible and emotive issue, they represent only a fraction of the additional housing London needs. Worse, refurbishing old houses on the cheap could lead to a whole new sub-market of poorly equipped flats. The fact is that local councils already have the power to purchase long-term empty houses but few have the resources to do so. Lambeth council has one Empty Housing Officer who ‘working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, would not be enough’ says Taylor.
Jenny Jones is campaigning on housing and many other issues dear to Londoners in her campaign to become London’s Mayor in 2012.