David Lammy: "The Danger For London Is That It Becomes A Permanently Divided City"

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 36 months ago
David Lammy: "The Danger For London Is That It Becomes A Permanently Divided City"
Photo by Joe Cox.

"I think this is a critical moment for London," says David Lammy, sitting in his office in Portcullis House. The official reason for us being here is to chat about his campaign to be Labour's candidate in next year's mayoral election. But really, we've spent the last 30 minutes talking about the city's housing crisis and we've just asked if he feels frightened about what could happen to London in the next 10 or 15 years.

"I think that London, potentially, could feel very divided, far less of a mixed community," he continues. "We could go back to the 1980s with more and more people sleeping on the streets — we’re already seeing that — our public spaces and parks with graffiti and drug paraphernalia, and that kind of dystopian vision of a city, really. If you haven’t got a mortgage, or you haven’t got a place that you really belong to, if you haven’t got a job... I think I know more than any other politician in the country what happens if there are significant groups of a community that do not have a stake in society."

Lammy is not only the MP for Tottenham; he grew up there, next to the Broadwater Farm estate. His constituents bring him their stories of struggling with housing — "I’ve got a woman who’s living with her three kids in a friend’s corridor. I’ve got another family who are sleeping in their car" — and so do his team: "They are a lot of bright young people. They are either at home or they’re travelling in from really far or in very overcrowded accommodation. They bring their issues to work every day."

You won't hear a single mayoral candidate who doesn't acknowledge the capital's housing issues and it will be a major talking point as we head towards May 2016. But Lammy has done more than talk. He's gone out and tried to find ways to raise money to build genuinely affordable housing. "The government has withdrawn £4bn of funding, so I think a Labour candidate’s got to have something to say about how you raise the money. I want to set up a new agency — like Transport for London, but Homes for London — that can go to the bond markets. TfL raised £8bn to invest in the tube and I think we can raise £10bn as a starting point to invest in housing. I went to the City and spoke to them about that. It’s very clear that that is deliverable and it looks like other candidates are adopting that."

Photo by Joe Cox.

There's an ongoing debate in housing circles about whether or not the government should allow councils to borrow money to build more council housing (the government currently restricts how much councils can borrow — even to build assets like property — because the initial debt goes onto the national accounts). City Hall is not necessarily subject to the same restrictions. Lammy explains: "If a separate vehicle is set up — and the mayor can do that, that’s what happened with Transport for London — it is not on the government’s books. A separate vehicle can get triple AAA rating in the market separately. So that is the way to raise funds to build. And in the gilt markets you can get very low interest — the best interest is a government bond, basically."

And these houses wouldn't be a mix of expensive one and two bedroom flats in towering blocks, with a few crumbs for low income Londoners thrown in. They would be genuinely affordable homes at old-style council rents. "I think the real issue in London is who you’re building for!" declares Lammy. "It’s clear that if the average house price in London is £470,000 and the average salary in London is £32,000, then as a starter for ten there is a significant group of the population who will never be able to afford to buy their own home. Therefore it seems to me that you have to be committed to social rents and council rents. Under my mayorship we would absolutely be back in the business of providing social homes."

So that's how you fund building covered; the next question is, of course, where to build. "Clearly it’s becoming harder and harder to build affordable homes in central London," he says. "Now I am committed to doing that, on public land particularly, and I think it’s a scandal that Scotland Yard’s been sold off for penthouses. All too often those public sites are going to the highest bidder. But notwithstanding that, clearly in outer London there is more scope for building property where land values are cheaper.

"I’m also really concerned about building up, up, up, up, up. I know that the average unit we’re building in London is small — our space standards in Britain are really, really tiny. Very poky flats are being built. Those flats are bad enough but they are absolutely not for families. When you look at the two million people on housing waiting lists in Britain, they’re families! It’s three and four bedroom places that we need to be building."

Photo by Joe Cox.

Now we arrive at another of those ongoing debates in housing circles (you really should come to one of our parties): whether or not, at some point, we're going to have to start building on greenbelt land. David Lammy is one of the few candidates openly admitting that he thinks it will become as a necessity, as he explains. "On the one hand, there is not enough [former industrial] brownfield land to build all the homes we need. Even on the London Plan, I think it’s 300,000 homes it says we can build; there's a Richard Rogers report that says 500,000. That’s not enough homes. But more than that there are other reasons why we need to be a bit suspicious of this assumption that we can build it all on brownfield: one, there’s a lot of evidence at the moment that the push for housing — and land values — is driving so much building, that we’re building out business and industry from the city.

"And the second is this business of building up, up, up, up and not addressing the needs of families. There are car parks in the greenbelt, there are quarries, there are wastelands. A fixed, hard rule that doesn’t allow for redesignation of parts of the greenbelt as land that we could build on, is problematic. And if we just built on 3.6% of London’s greenbelt, that’s a tiny proportion, we could build a million homes."

This all ties back into what we were talking about when we came in. London's strength has always been its mixture of people, rubbing along together. But the housing crisis threatens to divide us along the lines of rich and poor, young and old. "The Conservatives are boxed into a model that is very laissez-faire, that says the market can deliver," muses Lammy. "I think the market is delivering, I think developers are delivering, they’re delivering for profit and they’re delivering for a section of the market, for people who want to buy off-plan in Malaysia, Singapore or China. They’re delivering for DINKIES. If you want to buy a two bedroom flat on the Olympic Park or in the new Greenwich Peninsula or in parts of Tottenham Hale, I think the market’s delivering for you. But if you’re on a low income the market is absolutely not delivering for you. If you’re looking for a family home, you’re in trouble. And if you’re based in outer London there’s not enough building going in that part of town. So for lots of people it’s not delivering."

If you want to buy a two bedroom flat on the Olympic Park or in the new Greenwich Peninsula or in parts of Tottenham Hale, I think the market’s delivering for you. But if you’re on a low income the market is absolutely not delivering for you.

Even local authorities — who are supposed to be looking after people in the most vulnerable housing need — are prey for the market. Lammy warms to his theme as he speaks about his concerns for London's future. "I think there’s a real tension. You see it in some local authorities that are very close to the River Thames. And what happens is the local authority sells off prime sites along the river to developers who pay a fortune for it, and on the site by the river that’s been sold off, very little affordable housing gets built. If any, because some authorities are rolling over on viability — you know, the developer says affordable housing isn't viable and the authority backs down.

"Then the local authority says it's going to invest that money, build affordable housing further into town. What’s the problem with that? Well, aren’t we setting up very divided communities, 10, 15 years down the line? And the local authorities are doing this, let's be honest, because they've got no funds. But people feel divorced from their local authority because they think 'I’m about to be turfed out of my home, or they’re not building housing for my kids.' We’ve got to be honest about that debate that’s going on in London, and how a Labour mayor can do something to solve that and deal with that."

If you rent privately, you might be starting to wonder what there is for you, your annual rent increases and increasingly desperate pleas to the landlord to fix the leaky shower. Unfortunately, London's mayor just doesn't have that much power over the private rental sector. "I’ve called for rent stabilisation," says Lammy. "On rent caps, which is what I want, I think there would be a tussle with the Conservative government. I would attempt to try to deliver it, but whether the mayor has the full suite of powers to make that happen I think is debatable." What the mayor does have more control over is landlord licensing. "There are local authorities like Newham that have led on licensing of landlords and I’d want something that was pan-London," he says.

There's more to David Lammy's campaign than housing, but it's housing that he came into the mayoral race to really tubthumb about; we'd say he's the candidate who's put the most work in to coming up with real policies and solutions. He also genuinely gets it: there's a sense of real trepidation beneath the politician's patter. Whether he gets the nod or not, we hope his ideas are carried through to fruition.

You can have a say in who becomes Labour's mayoral candidate in 2016 by registering as Labour party supporter for £3. This also gets you a vote in the Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections. Find out more about David Lammy's campaign on his website, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Last Updated 05 August 2015