LCNC Open Letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing,

LCNC sent the letter below to the UN Special Rapporteur on housing before her visit.

Since her visit, her views have caused a storm as she condemned the 'Bedroom Tax' as a possible violation of  human rights to adequate housing (1).  Grant Shapps described her comments as an "absolute disgrace" (2) making us think she must have hit a nerve!

All this makes us even more proud of our letter to the Special Rapporteur. You can contact her at

http://direitoamoradia.org/?page_id=40&lang=en

To the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing:

We are London Community Neighbourhood Co-operative (LCNC). LCNC is creating a place in central London which promotes inter-generational living and multi use workspaces in an environmentally, economically and socially sustainability neighbourhood using a democratic and co-operative structure. It consists of six projects including a housing co-operative, an educational charity, an urban agriculture co-operative, a healthy eating cafe, and a mutual fund. You can see more about our project at www.lcnc.org.uk. We plan to custom build (self build) an eco apartment building and separate community centre around which to establish the sustainable neighbourhood.

 

Because LCNC invokes custom building and will rent housing in central London, we are in a unique position to be able to comment on the present situation in both the rental and custom build sectors. There are different yet overlapping issues in both these sectors which we would like to address in turn.

 

Part of the implications of the past 30 years of deregulation of the local authority owned housing and private rental sectors of housing have been to make central London appeal to property investors who, having lost faith in the banking sector, now turn to the seemingly endless rise of house prices in central London (Evening Standard, 13.08.2013). This means ordinary Londoners are now less and less able to afford to buy or rent in the city. The government has said that 'affordable rents' are to be set at 80 % of the market price ensuring a spiralling increase in rents and house prices bought to supplement incomes. This has had the effect of emptying swathes of London, brought by overseas investors who do not intend to live in these houses. It has also created no-go areas, open only to the super rich who pay for added private security to keep others out (Ham and High, 17.08.2013).

 

The Rental Sector

During the last 30 years, at the same time that local authorities were not allowed to build new council homes, laws to protect tenants have gradually been removed. Years of rental subsidies to the private rental market in the form of housing benefit have also helped to inflate rental income. Now we have reached the point where the law is skewed in favour of the landlord, where tenants’ rights are strikingly weak while rent prices are exorbitantly high. This has led to a lack of affordable, flexible, accessible  and secure housing in the rental sector which translates to tenants being in a precarious and vulnerable position. Security refers to the right to remain in a house, flexibility is the ability to leave before the end of a contract’s term. In practice, this means guaranteeing a stable price during the contract and the tenant’s right to break the lease at their convenience without penalty. Affordability refers to a legally binding checking mechanism for the rent price and any increases. This is also tied to the security of a tenancy, since the threat of ending a lease can force a tenant to accept a higher rental price. Accessibility defines the mechanisms to establish tenancies. In the UK, the amount of referencing required from a tenant is absurd compared to the very little security a renting contract offers. In fact this system is designed not only to exclude the poor but anyone who had a conflict with their landlord in the past.

 

All these problems are exaggerated in the London rental sector where people now are forced to share beds, live in garden sheds or travel miles into work at vast expense both in terms of cost to them and the environment. This is in stark contrast, to the majority of countries in Europe which protect the privacy of prospective tenants by regulating the process of establishing a tenancy, where rents can be freely agreed upon at the beginning of a contract, but increases are indexed by law, usually alongside inflation or consumer price indices. The countries which regulate private tenancies have a thriving and profitable renting sector, guaranteeing reasonable return on investment for landlords. This means a good part of the urban population enjoy stable and affordable living conditions. A regulated rental market gives tenants a great deal of stability in their lives, which translates into investing into neighbourhoods. We need legislation of this kind in the UK.

 

What is happening in London is a forced eviction of ordinary people. This eviction is due to the spiralling land, rental and house prices. One indication of this process is that large council owned estates, becoming more and more valuable, are being sold to private developers with little social housing built to replace those lost. Coupled with the policy of not supporting local council house building over the last 30 years and the continual cutting of funds from central government to local councils, this means that local councils are being pushed to sell off these estates. They do this under the guise of 'regeneration'. This word has now become a smoke screen for moving large numbers of people, who thought they had housing security, out of the city. In so doing, communities are broken up, people are moved away from their family, friends and neighbourhoods, the places where they grew up, to parts of outer London and sometimes to other cities hundreds of miles away.

 

This is a well documented process affecting The Carpenters Estate, The Heygate Estate, Pepys and Aylesbury Estates to name but a few. Of course these estates have problems, but the local councils' plans to remove the residents and make them reapply for a much reduced number of social houses makes people question their motives. There has been some resistance by residents to this happening to their communities, see for example West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates (http://westkengibbsgreen.wordpress.com), but there are other places where these moves are more insidious, for example in the South Kilburn Estate in Brent, where open land between council properties is sold and most of the housing given to developers for private sale on the open market. While it is true more houses are being built, for whom these houses are being built is another question.

 

LCNC, like most environmentalists, see inner cities as the site of future sustainable living. Living more densely in interlinked communities, sharing services and working close to home are all part of the answer. However, this does not mean a drop in living standards. Living in buildings that have been custom built means they are cheaper and easier to maintain by those who live in them. Co-operative structures mean people take responsibility for where they live, its governance and maintenance, and cost the local council less. Understanding this, there have been moves by central government in the UK to broaden the custom build sector but the obstacles to this have not been adequately addressed.

 

Custom Build (Self Build) Sector

The government has been promoting the custom build sector saying it should grow from 10% of houses built to 20% by 2015. Even if this target is reached, the UK still lags behind Europe where about 50% of all houses are now custom built. Three key policy documents as well as the Localism Act (2011) have been published to promote custom build. They give local councils the ability to establish the demand for custom build housing in their area and take positive steps to facilitate it, as part of Government accelerated public land disposals programme. However, in London, this aim is thwarted by the problem of access to land.

 

Access to Land

The biggest problem for custom builders in central London is access to land. Local councils are key to changing this by implementing a policy of leasing land to custom builders at peppercorn rents. In return custom build co-operatives can offer rental housing at controlled rents (see above). Whether this is possible in practice given the price of any small bit of land in central London, is, at the present time, down to good will. Deals are done behind closed doors; despite the Locality Act and other policies, the profits are just too huge to stop councils extracting short term gain. With cuts to budgets, local councils are having to sell off their most profitable asset, land, to fund their other services. Good will cannot compete! There has to be legislation to bring policies into effect.

Custom builders and especially eco custom builders have the advantage of using cheaper materials that need less technologically advanced building methods and skills. They use natural building techniques that can be used in areas where it may be too expensive to use mainstream building techniques. However the fear is that the profits to be extracted are so huge that even eco custom builders cannot compete.

 

One of the crucial results of the policies we now have in the UK and particularly in London, is that London itself is changing. It is becoming a 'Disneyland' for the super wealthy and at the same time a waste ground where foreign investors buy houses, inflating the market, but contributing nothing to the city. Their houses are left empty, impacting negatively on local amenities and businesses. These inflated markets cannot continue indefinitely. Even the super rich will not want to live here when all the variety and rich vibrant culture has left, as the workers who provide this playground can no longer afford to live in London. When the service workers have to travel miles from outside London to work at low paid and menial jobs in the service industries, London is faced with a bleak future. We cannot watch in silence and do nothing as this historic and beautiful city, with so much potential, deteriorates. We must try and recreate a decent, sustainable city open to all. Please press for laws to stop the sale of publicly owned houses and land, and also for rent controls.

LCNC

 

with thanks to Martin Herzberg for his cogent analysis of the London rental sector

 

(1)

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/11/bedroom-tax-should-be-axed-says-un-investigator

(2)

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/sep/11/un-housing-bedroom-tax-absolute-disgrace

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