Despite a difficult and poor childhood, growing up in estates that were often mistaken for council housing, on the whole families who brought me up owned their properties. Not dissimilar to families today, my parents and carers spent the vast majority of their income on trying to buy their homes, and on the whole we felt far poorer than our social housing tenant neighbours who seemed to us, as children, to have all the latest stuff the moment it hit the shops.
Looking back, this early experience of life and the principles drummed into me by my parents are what made me a conservative. Despite our hardships, my natural father, and the people who looked after me, were fiercely proud of the fact that they weren't unnecessarily dependent on the state. They were proud not to take social housing away from someone more needy, and saw it as a contribution to society; working and having a job despite the fact that they were paid little more than they would have received on benefits was noble in their eyes. They were quite literally children of an age where people asked "not what your country can do for you" but what you can do for your country.
But what really struck me as a child was the care and respect people on our side of the street, who owned their homes, had for our community and environment as opposed to those who lived opposite. They seemed to me, as a young boy, frightening and unruly; our garden's borders were neatly kept, where a garden gnome stood proudly over our hand-dug pond. Theirs had a broken washing machine.
From Dependency to Pride - If You Want Something Done, Ask a Busy Man
Thirty years on, this stereotype may be a little outdated, but it is still not uncommon. Ownership and responsibility gives people not just pride in their property, but a sense of inclusion in their street or neighbourhood too. I often stop to wonder where those council tenant neighbours are now, because it seemed to me that once you were invested in a plan of life that revolved around making yourself, your children, and children's children eligible for low cost accommodation - never earning too much lest you lose your benefits - it is difficult to escape. Relying on the state to do everything, from supplying your heating to replacing your kitchen, gives me the impression that they may well be being cared for still - and why wouldn't they be? After all the great Bob Crow remained in his three bedroomed council house until his death despite earning over a quarter of a million a year (and long after his kids had fledged).
My parents and various guardians, in contrast, no longer struggle to pay their mortgages- they also have savings, premium bonds, and pension schemes. They spent their lives working, and now work hard at helping out charities, collecting shopping for people at the local hospital and keeping an eye on their neighbours. Some might actually view them as quite affluent. One or two may have been very lucky and now be the target of a Green Party wealth tax, but they all came from the same very poor place; the same place as those people who were on benefits in social housing over the road - they just adopted a different plan for life. A plan that, without which, Great Britain Plc. would grind to a halt; because I believe that we all have a duty to set our alarms in the morning, get out to work, and make our contribution, asking for as little back from the state as possible. It's the thing they could do for their country.
They say that if you want something done, ask a busy man, and I think that's because when people see the joy of working and contributing and making a difference, they start to understand how intoxicating it can be. So I would like to give as many people as possible the opportunity to be freed from the housing and benefits trap, even though this will take both a carrot and stick approach. This has informed my social housing strategy.
What We Can Do Immediately
There are some simple things that can be done. First and foremost, we should look to discourage the culture of dependency and interference, and encourage people to stand on their own two feet. Having met with housing associations across London, I've got the impression that they feel a cultural obligation to interfere with, and patronise their tenants too much by providing services that they should not have to, such as intervening in noise complaints and petty disputes. This can lead to people feeling disempowered and infantilised, which in turn can foster resentment. I'd like to encourage a normal landlord-tenant relationship, with more personal responsibility.
To do so, we should do away with the notion that social housing is for life. I support the idea of tenancy reviews every five years, to make sure that housing is going to the people that need and deserve it most. By assessing tenants' salaries, wealth and behaviour, we can make sure that housing goes to the right people. Those who can afford to live elsewhere should be encouraged to do so, and those that don't play by the rules should be held to account.
Anti-social behaviour, such as keeping dangerous dogs, blights the lives of people who live nearby; law-abiding tenants and homeowners can feel totally helpless. To tackle this, I will implement tough guidelines about how to deal with this type of tenant, so that if they fail to respect their community and their environment, they will be evicted and considered by law to have made themselves intentionally homeless. This means that no social housing association is obliged to house them and they can look for private rented opportunities like the rest of us. Soho Housing Association conducts reviews every five years, and it works perfectly well - they start the review at the end of tenants' fourth year, allowing plenty of time for them to find alternative accommodation, or adjust their behaviour, if they are failing to meet the standards set by the community.
Moreover, affordable homes should be someone's only home. I think that, given the demand for homes in London, those that can afford a second home should not qualify for affordable housing- this is a fair way to help to free up space and resources. Having a second home while depriving someone else of a hugely discounted social home is just plain wrong.
Reset The Structure of Social Housing
We should give the GLA and London Boroughs more power to set housing benefits, so they would be empowered to use the funds to invest in housing as well as to subsidise rents. We already have a successful development called Arlington near Camden, which houses people working on low incomes; they are able to save up for private sector rent deposits while developing their career. I would seek to build more developments like Arlington to provide more affordable rent for low-income Londoners. Affordable housing does not have to be an aspiration-killer.
The big challenge now is helping housing associations implement the new requirement to allow their tenants to buy their properties. It won't be easy, because the complex financial deals behind new housing association development schemes rely on banks having easily identifiable property reserves. The important thing is that many people are given the opportunity to own if they want to, and the money from this goes directly into buying and replacing stock.
I truly believe that people who want to block this idea are solely interested in keeping people dependent on the state. It seems impossible and far-fetched, I know, but if someone is being given the opportunity to buy, and that house is being replaced - maybe by more than one unit - then the only reason for stopping that individual from getting on and becoming a stakeholding member of society is that they'll end up sharing the values of people like those that brought me up. And I'm sorry, but thats just not a good enough reason to stop this.
I intended helping these people, but help is just that - giving them the opportunity to change their lives - not keep them in a dependency status quo. The sacrifices those that brought me up made have instilled in me the same desire and drive to improve my life and work hard to try to improve the world around me.