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Boris Johnson’s housing strategy: it’s all smoke and mirrors

When you strip away the froth and the gimmicks, the more Boris Johnson publishes about his housing strategy for London the more it looks like a plan for the gentrification of large areas of the capital.  No more social housing funded from his London pot, just ‘affordable rent’ at much higher rents.  An end to the ‘50% affordable’ target in housing development.
No social rent targets set for the boroughs.  No mitigation of the government’s Local Housing Allowance caps and the cap on total benefits, which even he fears might lead to ‘Kosovo-style cleansing’ of poor people from some parts of the city.
Johnson’s recently published London Plan, which will determine development over the next decade, has been well critiqued by Labour’s Nicky Gavron in the Guardian. She shows how the plan’s overall housing target is inadequate to meet London’s needs, but reserves her strongest criticisms for his policies for social housing and Johnson’s decision to remove Ken Livingstone’s planning policy that 50% of new homes should be affordable
and that, of those, 70% should be for social rent.  These policies were based on detailed
assessments of housing need and the capacity of sites to deliver, and were beginning to have real effect.  They were also supported by the independent Inspector responsible for
investigating Johnson’s proposals.  All the inspector’s key recommendations have been ignored or over-ridden by Johnson and Eric Pickles, it appears on ideological grounds.
Why smoke and mirrors?  Well, Johnson talks the talk but he walks a very different walk.  He may be a card, but he is at heart a highly ideological Tory.  Just like his fellow Bullingdon boy, David Cameron, the compassionate talk and the occasionally progressive idea hide the harsh market-driven policy.  For example, despite saying that he didn’t want London to become like Paris “where the less well off are pushed out to the suburbs” his plan proposes building market housing in areas where there is a lot of social housing to provide a better mix but then fails to ensure that social housing will be built in areas of mainly market housing to create more mixed communities everywhere.  It seems nowhere
is appropriate for social housing.  He gives the go-ahead to his friends in the boroughs to remove social housing in so-called regeneration schemes, homes that will not be adequately replaced.  Taken together with the government’s housing benefit policies, we now have a fully fledged policy of removing social housing, failing to build any more, and encouraging the social segregation of the city.  His policies will make London like Paris but
Why smoke and mirrors?  Well, just published, his latest consultation document – Initial Proposals for a Revised London Housing Strategy continues to claim credit for the delivery of social rented homes as if he really cares about having a balanced housing programme.  Housing development is a very long process and the social rented homes he’s talking about are mainly the completion of those that were started under the programme for 2008-11 that was set by Ken Livingstone and the Labour government before leaving office.
Why smoke and mirrors?  To understand the mayor’s real housing policy we have to look at his first unfettered decisions – the new programme for 2011-2015 – which virtually excludes funding for new social rented homes.  Any new social rented homes that get built in future will either be subsidy-free (for example as a result of s.106 agreements) or will be built with local borough subsidy (eg through free land) or directly by the councils themselves.  Johnson replaces homes for social rent with housing at ‘affordable rent’ levels (up to 80% of market rents).  He claims in his document that this is a great achievement – providing ‘affordable’ homes with far lower levels of public subsidy.  Magic.  But the truth is that the rents are not affordable, the cost is transferred to the occupier or, if the occupier is eligible, onto the housing benefit bill.  It is a less direct and less efficient way of providing homes.  Despite the government’s protestations that it wants to make it easier to get into work, the scheme’s high rents make it harder.
Throughout, the real aim, to ‘marketise’ housing and remove social housing as a concept, is hidden from public view.
And the man with a shock of white hair, a top hat, a few jokes and a droopy magic wand, releases the blue smoke, flashes the bright lights and deploys the mirrors.  The trick is complete.
Cue applause.  Or catcalls – because he’s been rumbled.