I’m back at Westminster today after a three-week recess for the party conferences.
You may have seen a bit of the Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference on the TV or read about it in a newspaper, but there were two sections that were particularly relevant to us here in Croydon, which I wanted to draw to your attention.
Helping more people own their own home
The first was about helping more people to own their own home. This is what the Prime Minister had to say:
“If you’ve worked hard and saved, I don’t want you just to have a roof over your head - I want you to have a roof of your own ... When a generation of hardworking men and women in their 20s and 30s are waking up each morning in their childhood bedrooms, that should be a wakeup call for us” .
There are lots of my constituents in that situation so I was delighted to see the Prime Minister focus on this. When we were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, we introduced the Help to Buy scheme to reduce the size of the deposits people have to pay and a tax-free saving account to help people save towards a deposit. With property prices rising so quickly, however, we need to do more. The Prime Minister set out what we’ll do:
“In our manifesto, we announced a breakthrough policy: extending the Right to Buy to housing association tenants. Some people said this would be impossible. Housing associations would never stand for it. The legislation would never pass ... Let me tell you something. Greg Clark, our brilliant Communities Secretary, has secured a deal with housing associations to give their tenants the Right to Buy their home. That will mean the first tenants can start to buy their homes from next year ... As we said in our manifesto, 1.3 million to be given the chance to become homeowners. A promise made. A promise kept.
“We [also] need a national crusade to get homes built. That means banks lending, government releasing land and … planning being reformed … For years, politicians have been talking about building what they call ‘affordable homes’, but the phrase was deceptive. It basically meant homes that were only available to rent. What people want are homes they can actually own. After all, the officials who prepare the plans for the new homes, the developers who build them, the politicians who talk about them, most of these people own the homes they live in. Don’t they realise other people want what they’ve got - a home of their own?
“So today, I can announce a dramatic shift in housing policy in our country. Those old rules which said to developers: you can build on this site, but only if you build affordable homes for rent, we’re replacing them with new rules. You can build here and those affordable homes can be available to buy”.
This is a really significant change. Let me take a moment to explain why.
Our Labour Council here in Croydon has a policy that 50% of all homes should be ‘affordable’, which as the Prime Minister says actually means owned by the council or a housing association, not affordable for you to buy. This policy actually makes it more difficult for people to be able to afford to buy their own home. If you’re a developer who wants to build 20 homes for sale, Croydon Council requires you to build another 20 homes for it or a housing association to rent out. That puts up the price of the 20 homes for sale. And over time, it will inevitably reduce the proportion of people in the borough who own their own home. In 2014, 64% of families in Croydon owned their own home and 17% rented their home from the council or a housing association. If Croydon Council stuck with its current policy, the first figure would fall and the second figure would gradually increase towards 50%
We’re not going to let that happen. Most people want to own their own home. Government should help them to do that, not make it more difficult. In future, developers will still have to make sure a proportion of the homes they build are affordable, but they can be affordable to buy rather than having to be affordable to rent.
The other part of the speech that caught my attention was about equality. The first part of what the Prime Minister had to say was something previous Conservative leaders have talked about:
“There’s another big social problem we need to fix.
“In politicians’ speak: a ‘lack of social mobility’. In normal language: people unable to rise from the bottom to the top, or even from the middle to the top, because of their background.
“Listen to this: Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world. Here, the salary you earn is more linked to what your father got paid than in any other major country … We cannot accept that.
“We know that education is the springboard to opportunity”.
He went on to describe what the Government is doing to raise standards in our schools. After that, however, he said something I’ve not heard a Conservative leader say before:
“Let’s be honest: for too many people, even a good education isn’t enough. There are other barriers that stand in their way.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname.
“Do you know that in our country today, even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? This is a true story. One young black girl had to change her name to Elizabeth before she got any calls to interviews.
“That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally … Opportunity ... doesn’t mean much to a disabled person prevented from doing what they’re good at because of who they are. I’m a dad of two daughters. Opportunity won’t mean anything to them if they grow up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender rather than how good they are at their work.
“The point is this: you can’t have true opportunity without real equality. And I want our party to get this right ... I want us to end discrimination and finish the fight for real equality in our country today”.
This was music to my ears. My constituency is one of the most diverse parts of the country. Many of the people I represent aren't privileged. They don't have friends in high places. They have talent though. I want them to be able to realise that talent, not be held back by other people's prejudice. It’s not just about ethnicity, gender or disability. The Prime Minister could equally have talked about young people from working class backgrounds who have the ability but not the connections.
Of course, words are cheap; you should judge us on results. Nonetheless, I was delighted to hear the Prime Minister talk about two of the biggest issues that confront us here in Croydon: how we make sure that people get judged on their merits, not who they know, where they want to school or the colour of their skin; and how we make sure those who work hard get a chance to get on the housing ladder.
I’d love to hear what you think.