Closer to Home

By David Christie and Ellie Robinson

Amidst shifting debates on bankers’ bonuses, Scottish independence and our leader’s appeal, millions of people perceive politics as remote from their lives and communities. This is the first in a series of articles based on the belief that Labour is at its best when it talks to people on their terms; the house they live in, the community they belong to, the job they do or don’t have – real politics for real people. Fundamental to this is a conviction that the chance to benefit from the fruits of a prosperous society is a birthright not a luxury. The responsibility lies with us to build a 21st century socialism, embedded in community that genuinely makes a difference.

Nowhere is this more crucial than in the London Borough of Newham. The lack of social and affordable accommodation in the East End has led to widespread overcrowding. The private rented sector in Newham now makes up a third of all housing, over 35,000 dwellings. While some landlords act responsibly, there are too many who shirk responsibilities and exploit tenants – usually vulnerable people on low incomes. Many individuals and families live in unacceptable, Dickensian conditions, far from modern living standards.  This isn’t just a problem for the individual tenant(s).  Some landlords are not insuring properties, maintaining gardens or dealing with tenant ASB and so the wider community is also suffering.

The Rugg Review published under Labour recommended regulating the sector but the coalition rejected those proposals as “burdensome red tape”. This view is naïve and represents a catastrophic failure of duty and compassion which condemns inner city communities.

Newham Council will not sit idly by.  A consultation is underway to license all private sector landlords in the borough to improve the environment, tackle ASB and put rogue landlords out of business.  The approach is not just to penalise bad landlords but is an essential part of a wider strategy to actively create a community where people are proud to belong.

The East End is notorious for discovering and rediscovering poverty. Now we are doing it again.  During Newham’s scheme pilot, 250 properties have been licensed uncovering a depth of poverty shocking even to those of us who have lived here all our lives: People living in garages and walk-in refrigerators; 32 individuals in one house including 18 children. It is disgusting and shameful and, worryingly, is just the tip of the iceberg. 104 housing enforcement notices have enabled us to change lives.

As the Government continues to insist it will not regulate landlords and instead bellows a narrative about scroungers and attacks housing benefit, the onus is on local authorities to innovate and deliver. This scheme is just one example of what one Labour run Council can do but it shows an ambition that needs demonstrating by Labour nationally.

Only by being truly rooted in our communities, working closer to home, can we create and deliver policies which change lives and become a party worthy of government.

David Christie and Ellie Robinson grew up in the London Borough of Newham and were elected Labour councillors there in May 2010

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