Owen Bell reviews the London Young Fabians recent panel event about affordable housing in the city, featuring Sem Moema, Christopher Warrall and Shama Tatler.
On 27th January 2022, the London Young Fabians hosted an event about how housing in the capital can be made affordable for young people. We were joined by Sem Moema, the London Assembly Member for the North East constituency, Shama Tatler, Brent Council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Property & Planning, Christopher Worrall, the Local Government and Housing Member Policy group lead for the Fabian Society, and Rose Grayston, a housing campaigner and policy expert fighting to reverse the decline of social housing in England. Full details of the event and the speakers can be found here.
There was a lot of agreement amongst the panellists. They all agreed that a shortage of new homes, particularly homes available for social rent, was the primary cause of the housing crisis. The increasing burden of rents as a proportion of wages was condemned. The panel described how the housing crisis is having a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in society; young Londoners from minority backgrounds are half as likely to own their own home as young white Londoners, key workers such as nurses and carers find it difficult to find affordable housing, and many of the very poorest Londoners are forced to leave the city altogether, particularly if they wish to raise a family.
The main differences between the panellists concerned the capacity of the state to intervene to make housing more affordable immediately. Moema proposed introducing a modernised form of rent control, whereby rents would not be allowed to rise faster than incomes. She advocated a cap on service charges, which have hit leaseholders very hard, and controls on ground rent. Grayston believed in the use of empty dwelling management orders, whereby councils could use privately-owned properties for social housing if they could prove those homes have been unoccupied for at least two years. Tatler suggested an immediate increase in government infrastructure spending, which would unlock more sites for new homes and help address concerns that neighbourhoods cannot cope with new housing because of inadequate infrastructure.
Worrall wasn’t necessarily opposed to all of those policies, but he questioned their effectiveness. For Worrall, the root of the crisis facing young Londoners is a dysfunctional planning system where development can be blocked arbitrarily, even if they comply with London planning policy. This system allows mostly wealthy homeowners to lobby councillors to oppose new homes in their area. Worrall suggested moving to a system where proposals compliant with local planning policy are granted permission without having to be approved by a planning committee, speeding up the delivery of new homes.
The panel was very critical of Conservative housing policy, both nationally and locally. Viability assessments of proposed new developments should not allow developers to make a 20% profit margin – the historic margin of 12% is more reasonable. Help to Buy has only increased demand for housing without addressing the shortage of homes, resulting in higher prices. Councils cannot purchase land below its residential value, a rule which increases the cost of delivering council housing. In London, plans to build new homes on Tube station car parks have been opposed by Conservatives at the London Assembly and Harrow Council, despite the fact that building more homes near tube stations would encourage public transport use, help regenerate town centres and alleviate pressure to build on greenfield sites.
However, Labour’s approach to housing could be improved. Sadiq Khan is a strong supporter of preserving the Green Belt. But much of the Green Belt is unsightly and near noisy motorways. This land could be used for industrial purposes, allowing industrial land in other parts of the city to be used for housing. Labour MPs will sometimes object to new development in their constituency, such as Matthew Pennycook’s objection to the Greenwich Peninsula proposal. Labour have announced policies that will make new development more affordable, such as proposing to close loopholes that developers exploit to avoid building affordable housing. But without a plan to increase the total number of new homes built, the effect of Labour’s policies may be fairly limited.
Despite these shortcomings, I endorse Labour in the London Borough elections this May. Moema, Tatler and Worrall are all standing as Labour candidates, and if elected, will campaign for significantly more affordable homes. Labour councils all strongly favour more social housing. My local council, Southwark, has the most ambitious council house building programme in the country. Labour councillors will insist that developers build enough affordable housing, and will fight for homes that help tackle the climate emergency and include sufficient infrastructure provision.
Finally, all the speakers suggested responding positively to consultations for new homes, particularly for new social housing. Keeping in regular contact with your local councillors is important; councillors are more likely to support new homes if they believe that is what their voters want. It is essential that the views of all Londoners, not just wealthy homeowners, are heard by our leaders.
Owen Bell is the Secretary of the Young Fabians Arts and Culture Network and the Secretary of the Young Fabians Communications Network. He is also a Labour in Communications member, where he is a mentor for the IMPACT scheme to help minority and disadvantaged students enter the public affairs industry. You can follow him on Twitter, @owen_bell96, and on Instagram, @owen_bell96.