David Cameron tried to make electoral headway last week with his much publicised speech on immigration. But migration isn’t just about foreigners. In the next few years, towns in the south and east are going to see far more new arrivals from London than they will from overseas, as the government’s housing policies push poorer families out of the capital.
From Boris Johnson to Polly Toynbee, there’s been plenty of coverage about what will happen to London when social housing and benefits changes bite – the end of mixed communities in the capital.
Too little attention has been paid to what happens in the places where people move to: the towns and districts around London, which are some of Labour’s key battlegrounds in winning back the south.
People have an instinctive aversion to the overblown rhetoric which some have used to describe these changes, such as ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’ or ‘final solutions’. But nevertheless, we should be clear on the scale of what’s going on.
London Councils, the body representing the 32 London Boroughs, undertook a study using DWP’s own figures showing that London would see 82,000 families forced out of their homes because of the cuts to housing benefit in the private sector. That’s the equivalent of every household in Basildon and ten thousand more on top, packing their bags and hitting the road.
That’s just in the private rented sector. In social housing, the government is pushing housing association rents up to 80% of the market rate. That makes social housing massively more expensive in London than in surrounding towns and counties. To take one example: 80% of market rent for a three bed social home in Bethnal Green in Tower Hamlets is £416 a week, which is £238 more than in Harlow or £256 more than Crawley per week.
Many families in need of housing will find their only choice is to get on a waiting list outside of London or rent privately in south eastern towns.
These new arrivals will be the families on the lowest incomes, placing greater pressures on shrinking public services in towns around London. There will be even greater pressure on social housing. Campaigners know the importance of housing as a source of anger and frustration across key seats in the south, and how easily it is linked to issues of race and immigration. These problems may get a lot worse in the coming years.
Families moving out from London will disproportionately be from ethnic minority groups. Anyone familiar with the BNP’s campaigns across the east and south east will know that the campaigns were made credible by something that people did see around them; a rapid increase in ethnic minority families. This was, in many cases, the result of people being re-housed temporarily out of London while major regeneration schemes (for example in Canning Town began or while they waited for social housing to become available in their home borough.
That will now take place on a far larger scale but this time, with no right of return.
This will be a big challenge for activists, councillors and candidates. We need to raise early the concrete concerns about new pressures on housing and public services. We should put the Tory MPs and council leaders on the spot: do they think these policies are right? Have they lobbied their government for resources to manage the change? What provision are they making for housing, schools and health?
And, we must also be the first to articulate people’s legitimate concerns about the nature, speed and scale of change in their community. We didn’t do that in the past as part of the immigration debate and neglected to address the feelings people have about change they can’t control and the sense of powerlessness that can create. We can’t afford now to be caught flat-footed on an issue that the right and far-right can capitalise on.
At the same time, we need to be advocates of those forced out of London and make them part of the campaign. Active local Labour parties are well placed to see first where new families arrive, what their needs are and how best to engage with them. We should help foster through local institutions, community and faith groups the integration of those moving into south eastern towns from London – any separation will only breed distrust.
In the south, Labour should tackle this issue head on and make it a key campaign which unites existing communities and those leaving London. It should be a campaign against a Tory government’s market fundamentalism that thinks nothing of uprooting tens of thousands of people from their families, neighbourhoods and jobs and forcing them into areas and communities which are not well placed to receive them.
Tony Clements was a Policy Advisor to the last Labour Housing Minister, John Healey MP.