The average house price in Tower Hamlets is now over £600,000. Living in the borough for over twenty years, I’ve watched it happen. We have twenty thousand people on the social housing waiting list and have seen thousands forced out of London by the benefit cap. This is in spite of us having some of the UK’s most progressive housing policies, and being one of London’s better boroughs for housing.
It is patently obvious that Britain has a housing crisis, and the East End is no exception. It’s my children’s generation that are hardest hit – the challenges faced by Generation Rent are dooming the aspirations of a swathe of young people. When Nick Clegg said during the election that he wanted to help young people with mortgage deposits, I wanted to remind him that my children’s generation are struggling even with rental deposits. Housing is at the root of almost everything – where there are housing problems, educational attainment, quality of life, social cohesion and public health suffer.
As a local authority, there are two things that Tower Hamlets must do. One is to mitigate the human costs of the housing crisis, and the other is to lobby for long-term national action that addresses root causes. As a Cabinet Member for Housing I have done both, on one hand working to rehouse a thousand overcrowded families in the borough, create record numbers of affordable homes, and always push for developers to offer homes at social target rents rather than the 80% market rate deemed by some to be affordable. I’ve also campaigned against the bedroom tax, housing benefit cap and council tax benefit cut which have worked together to force people from their homes and communities. We bailed out 2500 families hit by the bedroom tax and absorbed the cost of the council tax cut. Meanwhile Newham Labour up the road saw nothing wrong with turfing out homeless single mothers, and treating them with such contempt that the Mayor of Newham was censured by his own Council’s Standards Committee.
Soaring prices in London are caused by demand outstripping supply. So quite simply, we need more housing to bring costs down. Every party agrees on this. But simply having more housing springing up is no comfort to those who cannot afford a place to live currently. Developers want to build in Tower Hamlets, and indeed in London, and there is no reason they cannot be held rigorously to account. My message to developers is simple – they are welcome in the borough, but the community must see genuine benefits – money for new GP surgeries, youth centres and public facilities, and social and affordable housing on site. Too often regeneration is used as a veil for social cleansing. I want to ensure that regeneration works for, and is led by, everyone who lives here.
Reform of the private rented sector is fundamental – according to Citizens’ Advice one in six renters live in unsafe conditions. Rents are, quite obviously, soaring while quality diminishes. It is shameful that only a handful of authorities have used the powers they have to implement landlord registration schemes that protect tenants. I will introduce landlord registration if elected mayor, while opposing revenge evictions and similar measures used to exploit renters. At the same time I will cap leasehold charges, and aim to bring Tower Hamlets Homes back into the council.
Social housing needs to be looked at as well. Right to Buy enabled many to own their own home, but the accompanying restrictions on councils borrowing to build meant this came at a disastrous long term cost – a horrific shortage of social housing. The Tories’ plan to introduce Right to Buy to housing association properties needs to avoid making the same mistake. Half the properties bought in Tower Hamlets under Right to Buy are now in the private rented sector. Currently, councils will be forced to sell off their most valuable housing stock, further contributing to social cleansing. I would campaign for councils (and Housing Associations) to keep their Right to Buy money, along with other funding, to invest in new social housing, and be able to borrow, thereby taking advantage of low interest rates to create social housing for those who need it.
In the meantime, what dwindling money councils have left has to be spent supporting the most vulnerable. I am pioneering a project involving providing bespoke homes for disabled people, and am aiming to halve the number of people with severe mobility needs on the social housing waiting list. Councils must continue to absorb the costs of welfare reform and do all we can to support people at risk of being forced from their homes and communities. We should engage with grassroots housing campaigns, taking inspiration from the spirit of campaigns like the Focus E15 Mums and New Era 4 All. Disappointingly enough, to my knowledge I was the only one of the now-mayoral candidates to have turned up on East London’s March for Homes in January.
It’s good that housing is now on the national agenda, and that even those in the Westminster bubble has been forced to talk about it. It will take a lot of local campaigning to turn that talk into action.