THE BLOG

A House for My Children: Where Politics Meets Reality

05/05/2015 17:54 BST | Updated 05/05/2016 10:59 BST

"I've never voted - politics doesn't make any difference to me. I just want your help to get a house that can fit my kids."

We were out together recently, when Donald, a man in his mid-40s, showed us round a crowded studio flat with three beds in the same open space and damp on the walls.

It's not politics to him, but it's politics to us - and he wants his councillors and his future MP to help. This is where politics meets reality.

Over the past few months, we have both had hundreds of conversations about housing: whether is high rents, landlords who ignore their tenants, difficulties getting on housing ladder, or the desperate shortage in council housing.

Indeed, it can be surprising how many issues come back to housing. The heart of the immigration concern is often pressure on public services and a shortage of housing. We have even won back a Ukip vote or two by exploring these issues with local residents. In Donald's case, one of his children had picked up serious asthma from the damp in the walls - creating knock-on pressure on the NHS. And there's no doubt that kids living in bad or overcrowded conditions are more likely to struggle at school.

There is broad political agreement on the need for new homes and the parties trade house-building claims like a game of top trumps.

Labour has plans for a total of one million new homes over the next Parliament, with the Lib Dems picking a figure of 300,000 new homes a year. Conservatives describe 200,000 "Starter Homes", while the Green Party want to build 500,000 social rented houses. UKIP top everyone with discussion of 2.5million new homes on brownfield sites, although they acknowledge this is not a target for the short-term.

But: there is enormous disagreement among the two major political parties about how to actually go about building houses and how to tackle the related issues. Let us give just two examples.

In their relationship with developers, the Conservatives want to remove the "Section 106 planning gain" rules which can be used by councils to require large developments to subsidise affordable housing or local facilities like schools. As they hope, this is likely to encourage developers to build, but it will focus their efforts onto luxury flats rather than social housing. Meanwhile, Labour will legislate to introduce a "use it or lose it" rule in which developers will not be able to leave land empty, tackling those who delay or speculate over increasing land values.

When it comes to renting, Labour plan to create a national register of landlords to punish bad behaviour and support three-year, secure tenancies during which there are limits on rent increases. Meanwhile, the word landlord only appears once in the Conservative Manifesto: they want to require landlords to check the immigration status of tenants. No surprise from the party that spent public money to write the words "Go Home or Face Arrest" on the side of billboards and trucks that were meant to target illegal immigrants but were driven provocatively around areas with large minority ethnic populations.

But it's clear to us that, whichever party forms the Government this summer, there is potential to go much further.

Large-scale building of social housing in the UK has historically been led by councils - and has also been under-invested in recent years. We want to explore ways to encourage councils to build more - lifting the cap on councils borrowing money targeted at housing development.

There is also much that can be done in learning and spreading existing good practice.

Camden Council oversaw a new kind of Community Investment Programme which identified dilapidated or under-used facilities that could be regenerated into new, high quality housing. Camden also increased taxes on empty homes - not only did this increase the rate of occupancy, bringing more homes into use, but it also raised revenue to support other housing improvement schemes.

Other London councils have explored ways of regulating landlords and tackling the rogue-ish minority. Tenants may not know the law in detail and are often in precarious positions that make it hard to challenge their landlords. Councils, by contrast, are well-placed to do this, but need staff to make it happen. A small annual license for landlords could fund this. Landlords overall would benefit as their reputation would improve and overall quality increase, and tenants would feel better protected.

There is a lot more to say about this, but - if this were a conversation on the doorstep - we'd be worried about losing your attention. Do write in if you'd like more details...

So what did we say to Donald? This did not seem the time or place for big picture politics or the trading of statistics.

Instead, we got to work. Chris took photos of the property and identified the building managers. Tulip found out about Donald's previous conversations with the council and the situation with his housing points. Then we got in touch with the relevant councillors to look into the case - hopefully we will get a good result.

But on the way out, we did say: "Your MP's job is to help you when other public routes have failed you - whoever you vote for, please break your habit and do vote on 7 May."

And that is where reality must also meet politics.

*Some details changed to avoid risk of identifying individuals

Tulip Siddiq is the Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn

Chris Percy is a strategy and development consultant