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I've Lived Britain's Housing Crisis - And Only Labour Can Fix It

01/05/2017 18:06 | Updated 02 May 2017

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A little while before my fifth birthday our house was declared unfit for habitation by health inspectors.

By this point there were insects oozing from the walls, chunks of the bathroom ceiling sat in the bath, and there was a fine coating of fusilli-shaped mould twists forming a sort of rococo effect on the walls. I was no fan of the cockroaches but mice were alright - I could put cheese lumps on my train set's bridge and race them along the tracks. The landlord was abusive and turned violent when we finally moved out and wanted our deposit back. The flat was located, paradoxically, in the bottom of a grand Georgian mansion in one of England's richest boroughs.

These days I'd self-describe as fairly middle class, but decent housing is still a pipe dream. After a year, we recently won a court battle against a letting agent who ran off with our holding deposit. My last house was so dangerously wired that the electrician developed a bomb-defusing demeanour resembling Jeremy Renner's character in The Hurt Locker on investigating our heater. Needless to say, all these places were expensive. A rental deposit means a long period of saving, even on a decent wage. There will be manned missions to Mars before a mortgage deposit becomes viable.

Successive governments - mostly Tory, but new Labour isn't guilt free - have let Britain's housing stock literally rot. In the Sixties, a Tory PM bust his own targets to provide swathes of new homes. Today it's a different story: the housing market is a rigged economy serving the richest at everyone else's expense.

The same story happens everywhere. Developers bully and bribe their way through the planning system (aided by firms like S106 Management, which openly advertise ways to avoid providing affordable housing) to build ever more luxury flats.

The foreign oligarchs who own these flats don't use them, except as pieces in a real-life Monopoly game. When councils do scrape some affordable housing from the billionaires, developers add in 'poor doors' so that their poorer tenants, their dirty little secrets, can scuttle in without spoiling the view. Meanwhile in the shires, virtually no development at all takes place.

The rented sector behaves like a medieval kingdom. With demand low, suppliers can demand whatever they like. Housing officers in my area routinely visit three-bedroom flats and find 20+ people there. 3 in 10 now live in shoddy housing, including 3.6 million children. Among children, the potential for meningitis, asthma, and other serious illnesses and disabilities rises by a quarter. Beyond a perennial hacking cough, I've luckily escaped the worst of this.

This isn't just markets being markets. The system is fixed by a cabal of politicians whose monstrosity would be comedic if it weren't real. In 2015 Tory MPs worked to block a bill to prevent landlord turfing out tenants who report housing problems. Tory MP and mansion-owner Richard Benyon jacked up prices on an estate he bought beyond what long-time residents could afford. Boris Johnson was responsible for signing off bundles of development deals (some in questionable circumstances) providing almost no affordable housing, while redefining affordable as 80% of market rate, an alternative fact that would make even Kellyanne Conway wince.

Johnson also argued German-style rent controls (which are opposed by just 7% of Brits) would be equivalent to Vietnamese Communism. The Tories brought in the bedroom tax and used it to sue domestic violence survivors and disabled children, the benefit cap that has forced families from their homes, the sale of social housing, and the run-down of homelessness support services.

The landlord lobby nestles at the heart of the Conservative Government, and every year they meet for an expensive jolly - called MIPIM - where they strike deals to flog even more of our housing. In return, they offer us a few 'affordable starter homes', which are affordable in only 2% of council areas.

On June 8th people face a choice between Theresa May who regards housing as a commodity, and Jeremy Corbyn who regards it as a right. A Labour government means investment in a minimum of 200,000 new homes every year they are in office, distributed fairly across Britain. Half of these homes will be genuinely affordable and held in public trust for those who need them. The billionaire class might take a hit, but these homes will pay for themselves quickly, and save us the fiscal and human cost of poverty, homelessness, and ill health - now estimated at £78bn a year.

Over the next few weeks I hope and expect new policies to support Labour's housing agenda - action on rogue landlords and assurances that new homes will be suited to those who need them, and service provision will keep pace with housebuilding.

For now, I'm grateful that I can vote for a government not held over a barrel by vested interests, and willing to get tough on the housing crisis which is blighting - and shortening - too many lives to count.

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