Housing our neighbours

If we are to appear as a government in waiting we must overcome the tenderness of discussing immigration policies, and we must do this fast. This starts by going straight to the core of this debate by asking ourselves, how do we actually intend to house new arrivals, particularly the most vulnerable? 

It is no longer proper to shy away from this issue when it is quite rightly raised by concerned voters on the doorstep. We must therefore have an open and honest debate about how we can match our innate, historical values as a party with our current global obligations.

International UN-led law recognises access to adequate housing as a human right. It is considered fundamental to an individual's health and well-being, and acts as a basis from which contributions to society can be made. However, in recent years, across the UK and indeed Europe, access to secure and stable housing across all tenures - including owner occupation, private renting and social housing - has gone from an assumption and expectation into an increasingly unattainable and fanciful pipe-dream.

An increasingly bullish voice argues that the solution to this lack of housing lies in tougher rules on migration. This argument can be roughly summarised as: scarce welfare resources are now solely prioritised for new arrivals into the UK; producing a shrinking social housing stock, whilst restricting employment and other routes that had previously allowed for tenure that was not only secure, but affordable for tenants. Despite, noteworthy empirical evidence debunking this theory, it often appears as inaccessible academese, allowing this straightforward and uncomplicated narrative to have near-unrivalled precedence. This is important because where it was once the zany protests of far-right groups, these arguments now have enough momentum to unravel into a mainstream political debate.

The problem is that Labour has borne the millstone of immigration for far too long and it is unlikely that immigration will lose its importance in the mind of the electorate. The ONS predicts that migration will account for a 51% growth in population in the next 25 years as labour migrants, family-joiners and students continue to embark on lives in the UK. Meanwhile, in the more immediate five years, the UK is legally-bounded to an agreement that it must accept 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, as an end to the hostilities looks increasingly unlikely.

Labour needs to begin to develop a strategy that is not only credible in the eyes of the public, but is aligned to our historical values as a party. This could begin with research that attempts to understand the way that migrants navigate the housing system, matched with research that addresses the concerns of settled communities. We could also think about undertaking a national audit that would survey empty dwellings, matching this with the capacities of local authorities to ensure that boroughs are able to provide safe and secure dwellings for refugees. Much could be learnt from the Canadian Liberals in both their strategies and policies that allowed them to mount (and win) an election on this issue in a landscape similar to ours.

Channel 4's new series Keeping up with the Khans reflects the public’s continued interest in issues around immigration. In many ways, its impulses are roughly the same as that of Immigration Street's, with the producers masterfully playing on the prejudices of the left, when, for instance, a man named Bert spoke through gritted teeth about immigrant's ‘easy lives’. In contrast, we also saw a Sudanese man named Omar, which made genuinely heart-warming viewing, as he was granted leave to remain in the UK. With his papers in hand, he made an astonishing revelation to live in a place beyond his settlement area where at least 80% of people are 'English'. Omar's aspirations reveal something that this debate often glosses over: people who migrate to the UK are remarkably active and engaged individuals. Any future policy discussion should search for ways in which we could emphasise the contribution migration makes to our communities, coupled with our duty as a nation to respond to the images we have seen of Calais and the Aegean.

Dillon Newton is a Young Fabians member

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