Jeremy Corbyn just proposed what looks suspiciously like a truly radical set of social housing policies

London mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn look at some flats. Image: Getty.

I have a problem – one which falls under the heading of “good problems to have”, but it’s a problem, nonetheless.

It’s this. Much of my approach to writing about housing policy over the last half decade or so has involved a combination of simmering rage and snark. It’s thus difficult for me to find the right register with which to communicate the fact the speech on social housing that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave earlier was genuinely, to my mind, good.

The policies the party just proposed will cost money – but doesn’t everything, and it doesn’t look like crazy money. And on an initial reading, at least, this looks like exactly the sort of package of radical housing policy reform I’ve been demanding for the last five years. I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?

I did say it was a good problem to have.

Here’s a brief rundown of the headline proposals, with my thoughts. Let’s start with the big one.

One million new “genuinely affordable homes” over a decade, mostly for social rent

That’s not quite 1m new council houses – a chunk of these would be delivered by housing associations – but it gets very close.

Building an average of 100,000 new social homes a year would be a huge shift from where we are now. The last time this country did anything comparable was the late 1970s. In the first example of a pattern you should get used to, Labour wants to turn the clock back to before the Thatcher government.

If you believe the housing crisis is in large part one of supply, then it’s hard to disagree with the goal here. Most analysts reckon this country should be building upwards of 250,000 new homes a year: the only time that has ever happened was during the post-war period when the state was doing much of the building itself.

That said, there are all sorts of reasons to worry that it might be difficult to get from here to there. Off the top of my head: shortage of land, shortage of workers, shortage of bricks.

But Labour does at least have a strategy for dealing with one of the big ones – shortage of money – which is...


Allowing councils to borrow to build

Talk about British local government to someone from almost any other country (I have done this; don’t judge me), and one of the things they will be most baffled by is the lack of autonomy our councils have to run their own affairs. The difficulty they have in borrowing to invest in the needs of their communities is a huge part of this.

And there is logic in letting councils borrow to build homes. New council housing means new assets and new revenue streams: the development should at least partly be able to fund itself. What’s more, tackling the housing crisis locally will also reduce demands for all sorts of other social services, which tend to fall on councils. Bring housing costs down, and you cut the national housing benefit bill, too.

It does mean pushing back against the core logic of austerity, that public debt is always and everywhere a problem. But that may be no bad thing in itself. And such a policy may win some surprising allies: even a few on the right have started to talk about the need to get councils building again.

Ending Right to Buy

This one seems less likely to win support on the right: cut-price home sales to council tenants remains a Tory shibboleth, even though it’s a drain on the public finances.

Scrapping it, though, is almost certainly a good thing. It’ll help shore up council revenues, and increase their incentives to build. What’s more, a depressingly high proportion of Right to Buy homes end up in the hands of private landlords. That feels pretty indefensible in the current climate.

Guarantees that any council tenant whose estate is redeveloped will be offered a replacement on the same site to prevent social cleansing

This will likely cost money: anything which ties councils’ hands when redeveloping an estate will.

But there are pragmatic reasons for doing it, as well as, y’know, moral ones.  One of the main barriers to redeveloping council estate is opposition, stemming in large part from the fact that in past redevelopments existing tenants have often been utterly screwed. Bring the current residents along with you, and redevelopment will get a whole lot easier.

A new definition of “affordable housing” linked to incomes, rather than average rents

This one is a particularly fine idea. Under the current rules, an “affordable home” is one which costs no more than 80 per cent of market rents.

The result of this is that, in more expensive areas, like inner London, 80 per cent of the market rent for a family home is not in any rational universe “affordable”. More to the point, it makes “affordability” a moving target: as rents increase, so do affordable ones. Linking affordable rents to incomes, then, seems a vastly more sensible way of doing things.

*****

Corbyn also promised to close the loopholes around the “viability assessments”, which commercial developers use to get out of affordable housing commitments; to give councils new powers to acquire land, which sounds a lot like stronger compulsory purchase rules; and to create a new government department focusing entirely on housing, which should help to focus minds.

But I’ve been going on quite long enough already. At a first glance, I’m not sure how easy it will be to deliver on all of these policies in one go. And there are gaps: there’s no mention of green belt reform, for example, and it’s not clear to me that some cities will have the space for large numbers of new homes without it.

On the whole, though, all this looks rather good.

I’m not sure how to end an article that comes to such a positive conclusion.

Soooo… Lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?

You can read the full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.