‘The further a person is from one of our great capitals—whether it is London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast – the tougher life can be,’ Michael Gove told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
It is his mission, as the first holder of the ludicrous title of secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, to fix this situation.
But is it true? It may come as some surprise to the people of Barking and Dagenham in east London, where 48 per cent of children live in households considered to be experiencing poverty, that they are among the most privileged in the UK.
It may also be surprising to the occupants of, for example, the Shankill Road in Belfast that their postcode offers them privileges not available to the market towns of northern England.
Nonetheless, this is the way the country’s social problems are currently framed: they simply weigh more if they occur in former Labour voting towns which have suffered the impacts of post-industrialisation.
Housing is the area in which this reductive portrait of Britain’s social ills falls apart most sharply.
It does not take a statistical mastermind to demonstrate that London suffers from some of the most pressing housing need in the country.
Take the issue of temporary accommodation – the often-dreadful Bed and Breakfasts or miserable converted offices where families are sent by local councils when they lose their existing home.
There are currently 96,060 households in this kind of housing. This includes 121,680 children, each one of them attempting to grow up and complete their education with no housing security whatsoever and in conditions which Human Right’s Watch recently described as ‘appalling’.
There have been a 63 per cent rise in the number of children in temporary accommodation since the Conservatives first came to office. This undoubtedly needs to be solved to fulfil Gove’s mission of ‘improving the life chances of children and families up and down the country’. More than 60 per cent of these children are in London. Indeed, one London borough (Newham) has more children in temporary accommodation than the entire north of England combined. This is an inconvenient truth for Gove’s ‘streets paved with gold’ characterisation of the capital.
It extends across issues such as overcrowding, affordability and the percentage of people who rent from a private landlord, all of which are worse in London and in big cities in general.
The framing of levelling up simply doesn’t fit with the reality of the housing market. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Gove’s plan had little to offer in this area.
What he promised was mostly reheated and long promised reforms to the private rented sector and a juggling of existing housing budgets.
Somewhat ironically, his most significant policy (the introduction of tougher standards for private rented housing) will undoubtedly have their biggest effect in the capital.
The decision to end a funding rule which diverts most housing cash to London and the South East, meanwhile, would be a poor deal if it took homes away from where they were most needed to where they are not, simply to serve the current political buzz.
There is also the issue that this funding requires developers to think the project is commercially viable. Gove’s coveted ‘King’s Cross style regeneration projects’ will not happen by themselves. They need investment to bring in the kind of private sector capital that drives them. Top slicing existing budgets won’t touch the sides.
The truth is that housing is too complex a problem to be solved with political sloganeering. The solutions change depending on what the precise problem is.
London needs more social housing for the families who can no longer afford to live there. The country’s post-industrial towns meanwhile need more inward investment, more job opportunities, better transport and improvements to the existing housing stock.
Gove hasn’t got the money to deliver either. Instead, he has a fairly bland set of interventions, a flawed vision of the UK and a lot of boosterism. It is unlikely to birth a radically different country.
We would see more solid progress on housing if the idea of ‘levelling up’ was replaced with much more tangible reforms. A sustained reduction in the number of children in temporary accommodation, for example, would be something worth aiming for.
But perhaps the reason politicians steer away from that sort of concrete promise is that it would be much easier to tell when they failed.