A packed audience at the University of Westminster last night heard a passionate and knowledgeable debate about housing in the capital between all six potential Labour mayoral candidates.
Left to right: Sadiq Khan, Christian Wolmar, Tessa Jowell, David Lammy.
The overall quality of the mayoral debate is significantly higher than the Leadership debate – which is being fought in the full glare of the media, with virtually all the press just waiting for opportunities to denounce whoever becomes the winning candidate, and start the ‘destroy Miliband’ operation all over again on a new person. Caution rules.
The London debate, by contrast, is largely being fought in the glare of the membership (and supportership, if there is such a word). The 250 people present last night knew their stuff, got right to the key issues, and took no rubbish. They didn’t want daft or unrealistic policies, or high blown rhetoric, but they absolutely wanted radical and practical policies that would tackle the real problems London has.
Someone tweeted that there was little focus on private renting given how many Londoners now rely on the sector: there was little disagreement and therefore nothing to argue about. All six had stories about bad landlords and Tessa described the appalling overcrowding she saw in a home in Newham. There was universal support for measures to restrain rents, to license landlords, to get tough on landlords who operate outside the law, and to either legislate against rip-off lettings agents or to set up non-profit alternatives. They all understood what could be done within the existing powers and what would need to be campaigned for. Christian was blunt: ‘The private rented sector is here to stay. We need to make it a stable place to live.’
There was also unanimity about the desirability of some form of land value tax, although there were different ways of arriving at one. Gareth was particular strong in stating that we won’t solve the housing crisis unless we sort out the land market. Christian has proposed a specific route from business rates to a land value tax in gradual steps.
Sparks flew on the issue of estate ‘regeneration’, which is becoming a big issue as developers eye up inner London estates as potential sites. David and Sadiq denounced regeneration as ‘social cleansing’. Sadiq was emphatic: ‘I will not allow council estates to be knocked down.’ Diane agreed: ‘Housing is about people and communities. What we have seen in the name of regeneration has been social cleansing.’ David was particularly angry about what is happening in his own constituency of Tottenham in Haringey. Tessa argued that you have to start from the condition of the properties and that rebuilding may be the right solution if they produced mixed communities. She came under pressure about her supporter, Lord Andrew Adonis, who has written in support of widespread rebuilding of estates (see also a longer critique by Duncan Bowie here). Tessa and Christian had very different interpretations about what he had said.
A question about housing policies for outer London, and how Labour can win there, led to a vigorous debate about the green belt, which became David against the rest as he strongly supports building on some green belt land, because not enough houses can be achieved solely on brownfield. ‘We give more land over to golf than homes’, he said. Diane argued that it would be giving in to developers and such a policy would just put up land prices. Sadiq stressed that ‘there isn’t a single solution in outer London as each bit of outer London is different’ and said ‘I will not allow our greenbelt to be built on’.
Everyone got exercised by the use of the word ‘affordable’ but everyone used it. The word has been stripped of any meaning by the Tories, and most candidates seemed content to talk about council or social housing although Sadiq also has specific policies for creating new intermediate homes at ‘Living Rents’, by which he means one-third of incomes. All agreed it was a nonsense to link rents to market rents. In a side argument, Diane got into a row with Tessa about the level of ‘affordable’ or social housing achieved in the Olympic Park.
All of the candidates were in favour of greater devolved powers to the London mayor, although they mentioned different ones. Gareth goes furthest, saying London should be a ‘city state’ and using this example: ‘Scotland is about to cancel Right to Buy. If Scotland has the power then I want London to have that power’.
Tessa got on the wrong side of the audience on homelessness. She was, I think not unreasonably, arguing that rough sleeping will never be totally eradicated because there will always be new cases. All the candidates spoke about rough sleeping, Christian thought Boris Johnson had taken the issue seriously, the others emphatically didn’t. No-one spoke of other forms of homelessness and the growing use of temporary accommodation out of borough and sometimes out of London.
Apart from land, the issue of building new homes recurred throughout the debate. Most candidates are in favour of a new homes agency to move development along, disagreeing only in the form that it should take. Christian called for a target of 50% social housing (not just ‘affordable’) in new development and argued that ‘Increasing owner occupation should no longer be an objective. Nor should rising house prices.’ Diane doubted the usual assertion that building more new homes would bring prices under control: ‘Building more homes is necessary but building more homes is not sufficient.’ She said.
A flavour of the debate can be found through #labourhousing where there are also plenty of photographs. This is my favourite tweeter joining the debate.
Harry Leslie Smith @Harryslaststand
It’s wrong that many must live like my generation did in perpetual rent poverty to keep the 1% wealthy #labourhousing
I’m sure I’ve missed many points, but hopefully this gives a taste of how it went. Please add comments if you feel I have overlooked an essential point or got something wrong.
All of the candidates are welcome to further the debate through #redbrickblog