Much has been made of the 'Tower Hamlets Psycho' advert (and for once that's not a headline describing any of our politicians). Obviously, an advert glamourising the lifestyle of wealthy sociopaths to sell luxury flats is a slap in the face to the 344,000 Londoners on council housing waiting lists. But there were interesting things about the advert - not the only recent dodgy luxury flats advert. Firstly, it was an honest and refreshing break from carefree glossy people enjoying their extravagant lifestyles through soft-focus lenses. Secondly, it unintentionally presented the mockery that's been made of 'aspiration' - to work hard all your life, to be 'swallowed up', all for the sake of achieving a few square feet of elegantly furnished floor overlooking the Square Mile. Finally, it was well-timed. The same day the story broke that less than 7% of the population oppose rent controls. An open letter to support a 31 January 'March for Homes' protest was launched alongside it (which I urge all to sign).
It's not difficult to see why. I spotted an outraged 38 Degrees post the other day about an East London bedsit costing £737 a month. To be honest, that's cheap compared to some prices in the area these days. £1160 is the London average. The Telegraph the other day ran a piece claiming that high rents were 'a problem that didn't exist'. I'm not sure what evidence they're looking at. A few years ago, my Council brought a judicial review to Boris Johnson's office on the grounds that their 80% definition of 'affordable' housing was unaffordable - (yes, the same Johnson who thinks that £250,000 is 'chicken feed'). Behind us we had solid research concluding that London Living Rent was in fact 65% of market rate. We also had our Fairness Commission conclude that housing issues including the cost of living were a top issue for our residents. We've established target rents that are below the state definition of 'affordable.'
It's not just rent - it's the housing benefit cap (rent controls would bring the housing benefit bill down, which currently subsidises landlords), the power wielded by global property developers, the vile and unworkable bedroom tax which my council had to bail out 2500 families from - but rent is a good place to start.
These aren't just numbers on spreadsheets being shuttled around government offices. As a Cabinet Member for Housing I hear every day from residents who are priced out and living in dire conditions - and this is in spite of our own council having created more affordable homes in the last few years than any other. The obscenity of it all is brought home by this: a short walk in one direction from me are some of Britain's most deprived people, and in the other direction are the champagne bars and investment banks of Canary Wharf.
Controls are needed because the market cannot be trusted to work for people who need homes. London is desirable - read expensive - (and there is a sinister undertone there of the poor becoming undesirable - look no further than the 'poor doors' and homeless spikes fiascos). As long as London remains desirable, prices will soar. The balance of power will favour the landlord against the renter. So controls don't criminalise landlords. They ask that landlords rent at a price ordinary people can afford, and maintain the properties they let at a healthy and high standard. People unwilling to do that shouldn't really become landlords in the first place.
The problem isn't viability, it's politics. One might think that Labour's political strategists would see 77% of private renters in favour of caps and identify the issue as a vote-winner. Even a majority of Tory and even Ukip voters also support capping rent, the latter revealing an interesting disconnect in the sort of people who might usually think 'mass immigration' was to blame for housing problems. But political commitment would be hard to achieve. 27% of Tory MPs and 15% of Labour MPs are themselves landlords, and when backbench Tory MPs wreck a debate on a motion to stop landlords evicting residents on a whim, it's fair to be worried. Then there's people like Labour Newham mayor Robin Wales who kicked 29 single mothers out of their hostel and then lambasted them for occupying empty homes. Finally New Labour's dogmatic obsession with 'the centre' will not help. Endlessly they reassure us that they will in fact maintain many of the Tories' cuts and not be 'too left wing', even on issues like rent control or railway nationalisation which are accepted as common sense by the majority.
'Tower Hamlets Psycho' from that infamous Redrow advert would be one of my constituents. I don't begrudge him or his real-life counterparts saving up for a dream flat. I do think we should do what it takes to ensure the other quarter of a million people I work for are also entitled to a comfortable place to call home. In the world's sixth-richest economy, there's no reason we can't provide that.