This is the fourth in a series of six articles on the housing policies of each of the shortlisted mayoral candidates.
David Lammy on housing
As an early declared candidate for mayor, and to his credit, David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, published a detailed 40 page report on his housing policies as long ago as August 2014. (The full report can be read here). The report describes the housing crisis in London, and the facts he reports will be familiar to readers of Red Brick: failure in housebuilding, escalation in house prices and rents, unaffordability, bad housing conditions in the private rented sector, and homelessness.
In his analysis of the issue, Lammy started with the economic case for housebuilding and the continuing costs to business of enduring housing shortages, and the threat they pose for the future. He highlighted the advantages that housebuilding could bring to the Treasury, writing that ‘making housing affordable is also the only fair and sustainable way of reducing the UK’s burgeoning housing benefit bill.’ But he does not see housing entirely as a matter of economics: ‘The quality and location of our homes dictate the quality of our lives, and we need more homes not just to meet demographic demand and economic need, but to improve the quality of life for millions of Londoners.’
So what were the key conclusions and recommendations of his report? He divided them into three sections.
First, on building the homes we need, he made a number of proposals relating to land. He called for a register to be created of all land, public and private, which could be suitable for housing. He called for a faster release of public sector land. He wanted to intensify development in some places, with higher densities and high rise housing in central London and near transport hubs, and he called for greater innovation to achieve higher densities in new terraced housing and low rise blocks. He also supported moves to encourage smaller developers, to improve council planning capacity, and to launch a ‘help to build’ scheme.
Controversially, Lammy clashed with CPRE when he called for a review of all green field land within London, for the release, perhaps with land swaps, of poor quality greenbelt land, and for stronger links between new housing development and transport infrastructure spending. He made the point about the green belt more colourfully in a tweet on May 22, when he said: ‘Greenbelt regulations allow older generations to protect their golf courses while young people can’t afford a decent home. Needs to change.’
Writing on Red Brick in September 2014, Lammy was strongly critical of Boris Johnson’s so-called ‘affordable rent programme:
‘We also need to correct the mistakes Boris Johnson has made on ‘affordable housing’. He moved the goalposts on affordable housing so that ‘affordable’ rents can now be charged at up to 80% of market value. As private rents soar, that mean these ‘affordable’ rents are now being set at thousands of pounds per month. The current debate around affordable housing is a farce – politicians have used the phrase ‘affordable’ but have not been honest enough to admit that it means nothing to most Londoners.’
Secondly, on meeting the affordability challenge, Lammy called for a new definition of affordability, linking rents to incomes and setting an upper limit on the proportion of income that ‘affordable housing’ can consume – which he has since defined as 50%. He wanted to set a minimum acceptable number of affordable homes to be provided in developments, and he also proposed a review of the Community Infrastructure Levy.
For councils, he wanted to lift the cap on prudential borrowing in the housing revenue account, to control the right to buy by reducing discounts, requiring replacement homes, and introducing new covenants on sales that would, for example, prohibit future private renting. He wanted councils to be able to raise extra funds for housebuilding by adding additional council tax bands and he wanted to incentivise councils to build by allowing them to keep part of any savings achieved in housing benefit as a result of building new council houses.
Thirdly, to keep rents down Lammy supported the introduction of a ‘rent stabilisation policy’ with ‘sensible rent controls’ including a cap on rent increases, linked to longer tenancies and strengthened security of tenure. He also wanted to introduce a London-wide register of landlords.
Lammy said it was ‘wilful ignorance’ to ignore the scale of the challenge:
‘There is no quick fix, no magic wand to be waved at a problem that has been left to worsen for decades, but there are substantial steps we can take to address the crisis. London is at a pivotal juncture. If we put in place effective long-term policies now, we can ensure that the London of 2030 will still be the greatest city in the world. Continue to practice wilful ignorance for the scale of our housing challenge, however, and 21st Century London will fail to deliver on its promise.’
If his report still represents the core of his housing policy, Lammy has added some points since its publication. He has proposed a London Value Tax on overseas investors who leave homes empty, which he claims could raise £650 million to invest in council housing. And earlier in June, he proposed to build 30,000 new social homes paid for through funds from the GLA group of organisations and a new London Housing Bond. His plans to issue up to £10 billion worth of bonds during his mayoralty also involved a new new organisation called Homes for London directly funding the building of new homes.
Like all the candidates, in spelling out his views Lammy does not say much about which ideas can be delivered within the mayor’s current powers and what would require new legislation or additional devolved powers. It will be a test both of the new mayor’s powers of persuasion and of the Conservative government’s genuine willingness to devolve power to a politician with whom they disagree. By throwing down the housing gauntlet early on, Lammy has encouraged a focus on housing policy which is to be welcomed.