Time to tell Boris Johnson to ‘get stuffed’

    ‘Get stuffed’ – what Boris Johnson said to GLA Member Andrew Dismore during questioning about fire service cuts. 

Yesterday the Mayor of London produced his latest ‘prospectus’ for bids to provide ‘affordable’ housing in London. It sets out the terms under which the Mayor’s budget of £1.25 billion will be spent in the years 2015-2018, for which he claims he will provide 15,000 ‘affordable’ homes a year. (My apologies for always putting the word ‘affordable’ in inverted commas; I do that because that’s what they call it – it’s not an accurate description).

What is astonishing about the document is that it contains not one word of evaluation of the current ‘affordable rent’ programme. This has now been around for some time but it is the most secretive and least scrutinised housing programme I have ever known. Information has had to be dragged out of the Mayor and when it does come it tends to be unintelligible.

We did finally last week get some outturn data. It is important to remember that it takes several years to plan and build homes, so the ‘completion’ figures for 2008-09 and 2009-10 result from Ken Livingstone’s programme that Johnson inherited, and the figures for 2010-11 and 2011-12 result from the Labour Government-funded National Affordable Homes Programme – underway before the Osborne cuts had their impact.

Counting all types of ‘affordable’ homes, in 2008-09 a total of 11,537 were completed in London funded by the Mayor; in 2009-10 it was 12,602 and in 2010-11 it was 12,869. In 2011-12 it peaked at 16,173. Then, in the first year that the Johnson/Osborne policies became effective, it plummeted to a mere 8,114. In the first six months of 2013-14 (to October) the figure was a mere 1,490.

It is still the case that the majority of homes for which Johnson claims credit were either programmed by Ken Livingstone before his 2008 defeat or funded by the Labour Government before its defeat in 2010. In short the Johnson era has been a complete and unmitigated disaster with huge rent hikes but still very few new homes.

Why on earth should we believe that his strategy for 2015-18, with a lot less money, will be any more successful? There is no reasoned argument in the prospectus for Johnson’s decision to split the new the ‘affordable rent’ programme into two halves – ‘discounted’ at 80% of market rent and the new ‘capped’ at 50% of market rent. It may be a little victory – an acceptance that rents in the first programme were far too high (they averaged around 65% of market rents). But then again half the new programme will be stuck even more firmly to the 80% ceiling.

Johnson requires providers to sell high-value existing stock or to re-let existing social housing at ‘affordable rents’, or even market rents, in order to cross-subsidise the programme, but there is no information on the assumptions that have been built into the programme – how many are needed to make the sums work? When it comes to contract negotiations, held in secret, how many sales and conversions will the GLA be pressing for?

There are so many unanswered questions, and the failure is so dire, surely it is time for providers and boroughs to make a stand. Some boroughs are already taking a judicial review on rent levels, and good luck to them. If the G15 of biggest housing associations came together and said no, we won’t work through this framework – rents are too high and the financial implications too severe – the Mayor would eventually have to back down. Boroughs should make it clear to the GLA and providers that such high rents are unacceptable in their boroughs.

Former Housing Minister John Healey makes a similar plea in the Guardian today for the sector to stand up for social housing. There is, he says, little by way of sustained opposition. It is irritating the way in which providers and even some campaigning charities get lost in technocratic arguments about the best way to borrow money and how to structure shared ownership arrangements. John hits the nail on the head when he says ‘Much of the housing sector seems reluctant to pick a fight with a hostile government’. He argues: ‘The policies betray a deep hostility to council and housing association homes at the heart of this government. As a senior civil servant confided to me: “David Cameron thinks social housing means sink estates; George Osborne just sees Labour voters.” ‘

John quotes a leading housing association saying that there will soon come a time when even those providers with a strong sense of social purpose (regrettably a diminishing number) are just not able to provide genuinely affordable housing in the capital.

Surely the time has come for a more trenchant defence of the values that underpin the social housing movement? Johnson is failing to build new homes despite having hiked rents up to unforgiving levels. It is madness to remove subsidy from the building of new homes in the knowledge that the cost will either be borne by tenants themselves, by housing benefit, or by selling stuff off.

The failure to provide genuinely affordable housing is the ultimate ‘cost of living’ issue.

It’s time to speak up!

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