Welcome to Britain
First Published 23 October 2016
Immigration has helped make London one of the worlds most productive cities – so build more social housing, says Ken Livingstone
One of the clearest memories from my schooldays in London is of the teacher standing in front of a map of the world covered in red and telling us that we were living in the greatest city on earth.
The British empire encircled the world in those days -all those countries coloured in red. We heard a lot about it throughout my childhood -it was arrogance to assume we were the biggest civilisation in history.
But the world now emerging is one in which the most successful economy is China. We are living through a huge shift of economic and eventually military and political power from America and Europe to Asia.
For those who have the money, a young generation is coming of age in a pick and mix world with young people choosing what they wanted and deciding how they will live. I’m very comfortable with that because that is what London is all about.
One person in 20 is mixed race and it is the only city in the European Union that matches US levels of productivity and competitiveness. I strongly suspect that this is because London is the most open city in the EU -the most welcoming to immigrants and the one in which one third of the population is foreign born.
Yet the debate about immigration and housing continues to foster resentment. The single most important point about immigration and housing is the mismatch between the need for social housing and its supply. One of the things that has most disgusted me with the past 11 years of Labour government is the failure to reverse the policy that Mrs Thatcher introduced when she devastated supply by stopping councils building new housing.
In 1979, a third of the people in the country lived in social housing and the composition of that social housing was an almost perfect mirror image of the wider community. Middle class and working class lived together. There were occasional sink estates, but the majority of that social housing was of very good quality.
Estates were not concentrations of single parents, poor people or the unemployed that they have become following the twin disasters of stopping building new homes and flogging off good housing stock.
We have got to build more social housing rather than restrict the flow of people coming into Britain. We have to put in place a proper council house building programme.
Even if we had built just 100,000 homes for rent each year during the past 30 years -under half what was built in the 1960s and 1970s -we’d be talking about another three million homes for rent now.
People say that Britain is a tiny overcrowded island, but London is the least dense large city in Europe. We have the same population as New York and Paris but in twice the area.
There is a vast amount of space. When I was mayor, my office identified immediately available space for the construction of 330,000 homes not green belt, not playing fields, but great swathes of brownfield development.
This is not a politically left or right wing issue. Redbridge, a right-wing council, plans to build 5,000 new homes around Ilford town centre to create a critical mass for cultural and leisure services and rebuild the dynamism of their town centre. You could do that across the London’s declining suburban centres.
The shortage of social housing continues to play into the hands of the far right, even though the facts show the fallacy of their arguments. A study of council house lettings in Barking and Dagenham showed that 98 per cent were to long-term terms residents or the children of long-term residents. Less than 2 per cent were to so-called immigrants.
The reason there is political tension is that following council house sales, the first wave of tenants who bought those nice little bungalows are now dying. Their children who have already moved out of the area are flogging off the homes -and in a city where a third of the inhabitants are black or Asian, some of these homes will bought by black and Asian people.
The scale of immigration now is nothing compared to what is coming with climate change. Three countries that will be the least affected are Britain, New Zealand and Japan -all island nations in temperate zones.
But climate change will result in millions of refugees and the next generation will find a much greater scale of problem in terms of providing housing in this country.
Almost every country in the world will be affected by it and we only have a 50/50 chance of stabilising the situation before it’s too late.
Ken Livingstone, former mayor of London, was speaking at the NHF conference.