Last night’s launch of the London Labour Housing Group was an astonishing event. Getting on for 200 people packed the Grand Committee Room in Parliament, full to overflowing. Chaired by Nicky Gavron AM, guest speakers were Ken Livingstone, Karen Buck MP, and Linda Perks from Unison. Alison Seabeck MP, Labour’s shadow housing minister, popped in from the Committee on the Localism Bill to wish us well. The audience included MPs, councillors, unionists, tenants and Labour members from all over the capital, with outer London as well represented as inner.
Ken’s speech ranged over 4 decades of housing policy in London, the peaks when boroughs like Camden were producing 2,000 homes a year and the GLC had a target of producing 10,000 a year on top of the boroughs’ efforts, and the troughs when Thatcher was in power and the Tories held County Hall and all programmes were cut back. If Labour policies had continued through the 1980s, it can confidently be said that London’s post-war housing crisis would have been overcome and the city would be totally different today. Councils need to build again and we need to find ways of bringing private rents under control. But our policies must also meet the needs not just of the poorest but of the many Londoners, people earning up to £70K a year, who can no longer afford to buy and also have limited housing options. As London’s population continues to grow, genuinely radical policies are needed if the capital is not to resemble Paris, with the centre of the city occupied by the rich and the poor consigned to the outskirts.
Karen focused on the changes to housing benefit and the local housing allowance. She contrasted the number of people predicted to have to move from their local areas under this policy with the furore over Lady Porter in the 1980s; her attempts to remove the poor from Westminster were miniscule compared to what will happen now. The danger lies in the range of changes combining together to force people on low incomes to move, but increasingly it was being realised that there is nowhere for them to move to. If people attempt to move from expensive to cheaper areas the impact of the increased demand will be to raise rents at the lower end of the market – which would be catastrophic. Rising homelessness, growing unemployment, increasing rents, growing dependence on private rented accommodation, all of these pressures would increase the HB bill; the policy would be devastating in effect but counter-productive in saving money.
Linda emphasised the impact of the cuts on local government in London, and the fact that councils would be cutting back on front line services at just the time that people need them most. It was important to link what was happening in housing to other sectors, especially health, because it was all part of a single policy to roll back the state. She stressed the importance of getting maximum support for the TUC national demonstration against the cuts on Saturday 26 March in Hyde Park and pledged Unison’s support for housing campaigns in the coming months.
There were around 30 contributions from the floor, identifying weaknesses in previous Labour housing policies, the issues being faced in the boroughs, the links between housing, employment, health and education, and ideas for future campaigns. There was a strong focus on the need to win the Mayoralty in 2012 with a strong and radical housing policy. The new London LHG will help develop those policies but also support a range of housing campaigns because the issues will not be properly addressed until we have a Labour Mayor in 2012, more Labour boroughs in 2014, and a Labour government whenever the General Election comes.