Sometimes luck smiles on you a little, though often only if you are awake and keeping your wits about you. I’d seen the adverts on the side of a bus for the London Property Show and was ready when it drove slowly behind the protesters, but it was a fleeting opportunity and there were no second chances. But while for the rich ‘Your Dream Home Awaits You’, for most Londoners, housing is a nightmare, and for too many becomes, as the poster below says, ‘A Mental Health Issue.’
London property prices are now simply beyond the reach of most Londoners, partly because property here has become an investment opportunity for the wealthy around the world, particularly in the Far East. Developers advertise properties in Singapore and elsewhere, suggesting that prices will increase at rates much higher than bank interest rates or most investment bonds, and their predictions have proved correct over the years.
Market rents for even relatively small flats in less popular areas of the city are now too expensive for most, and while they used to be advertised with their monthly rates (pcm), increasingly in the agent’s windows the figures are weekly, with little below £400 a week. A worker doing 40 hours a week on the legal minimum wage that the government now refers to as the living wage of £7.20 per hour (starvation wage would be a more accurate term) would make £288 per week before deductions, and even those fortunate enough to get the real London Living Wage of £9.75 per hour would find it entirely swallowed up.
There is still some lower cost social housing, though the current government policies seem aimed at getting rid of it, either by bringing up rent levels to the market rent, or at least to 80% of that, which is ridiculously called an “affordable” rent – still usually well above the weekly earnings on that so-called ‘living wage’. There is of course housing benefit – though generally that is capped well below market rents in London, and its main effect has been to push up rents and put money into the pockets of the landlords.
London urgently needs more social housing – and that should really be council housing, which Margaret Thatcher put a stop to councils providing – while forcing them to sell off existing stock at knock-down prices to the sitting tenants. Just one of many policies that have earned her the eternal hate of a large section of the community. Relatively few came out to dance when she died, but many, many more celebrated in the privacy of their homes, pubs and clubs. And as they say to those who want to set up some monument to her, she already has one in the thousands of food banks around the country.
The protest by Focus E15 housing campaigners and mental health activists was in Stratford, the centre of the London Borough of Newham, which has one of the largest housing problems in the country, one of the longest waiting lists for council housing, the great majority of whom will never get it, and is currently in the middle of a huge building site, with tall blocks of apartments going up. But few if any of these huge schemes will offer accommodation at prices locals can afford – over a third earn below the London Living Wage.
Newham puts many into temporary accommodation, often of a very poor standard, dangerous and infested with vermin, provided by companies that fail to repair or maintain them properly and a long way from friends and jobs. They try to force those with urgent housing needs that they have a statutory obligation to rehouse to move to towns and cities in distant parts of the country, breaking the links they have to family, services and schooling. And scandalously they have been trying to empty and sell off one of their best loved council estates close to the centre of Stratford, the Carpenters Estate, where people have been moved out of hundreds of good quality homes, some now vacant for well over ten years.
A 1 bed flat to be completed here in Spring 2017 was recently on offer at a bargain £420,000 – the market price was £470,000
Newham is a one-party state, with 60 Labour councilors and an elected Labour Mayor, Sir Robin Wales (who campaigners refer to as ‘Robin the Poor‘, though financially he has done pretty well out of the job he has held since 2002. Recently Private Eye revealed the ballot rigging in Newham that made him the only Labour candidate for the 2018 elections. Party members voted 424 members to 351 in favour of other members being allowed to stand, but then affiliated groups were allowed to vote and their votes overturned the local party decision.
Its long past time that Labour Party members in Newham began to take a good look at how their borough is being run, and to get back to asserting the values that the party traditionally stood for. But the chances of any real change in policy seem low at the moment. It’s boroughs like this that are far more in need of investigation than the neighbouring Tower Hamlets, where the Mayor Lutfur Rahman was deposed. Had he, like Robin Wales have been Scottish rather than Bangladeshi he would still be Mayour – and still doing a rather better job for his residents.