Back in 2008, one Mayoral candidate explained that it would require imagination to solve
London’s housing problems. The candidate developed a manifesto that suggested a new form of “democratic” home ownership, which which would "help build stronger communities",
and which would allow houses to "remain affordable for future generations". He said he would "create a network of Community Land Trusts, managed by cooperatives to give homes to
people who are indispensable to this city."
His name was Boris Johnson and since he was elected not a single Community Land Trust has materialised in the capital.
This is a quiet tragedy. Just like Ken Livingstone, Boris has spent huge amounts of time and resources promoting New Labourish ‘affordable housing’. Tens of thousands of units variously involving
shared-ownership schemes, complex lending arrangements or – more often – pokey rooms have sprung up around town, but nothing has been done to address the fundamental economics of the capital’s
Instead, beset by a huge rise in foreign and domestic housing speculation and too little new building, Londoners have watched prices outstrip wages in the private sector and demand outstrip supply
in the social sector. As a result, millions of people – from high-flying young city workers to unemployed families – have been pushed into unaffordable and unstable private rented
But, if properly developed, Community Land Trusts (CLTs) could be a silver bullet for these problems. Unlike the affordable schemes attached
to for-profit development, CLTs are specifically designed to take the profiteering and speculation out of house buying. They work by buying land and building housing but, instead of selling each
property for maximum profit, the communities retain ownership of the land in perpetuity and sell the housing cheaply. In return, the ‘owners’ agree to sell the houses back to their Trust at a fixed
rate when they move on.
Finally, this week, after six years of determined campaigning, London Citizens launched their bid to buy the St. Clements Hospital
site in Bow Road. The plan is to turn the former NHS property into an East London Community Land Trust – exactly the type of scheme that Boris once championed. Better still, the mayor sits on
the panel which will decide whether to sell the property to the Trust or to one of a clutch of speculators. So he is in charge.
If he approves the scheme, he will finally have begun to demonstrate the flair and imagination that formed the backbone of his first campaign for mayor. And that’s crucial within the context of the
upcoming elections – even Ken Livingstone is now aware that he cannot spend his way out of London’s housing crisis. As he admits in his new Housing Manifesto:
"The new Conservative and Liberal Democrat government’s cuts to Labour’s plans for housing investment have led to a complete moratorium on new projects. London is particularly badly hit by
the cuts and our housing crisis will inevitably get much worse."
I think CLTs are a reason for optimism not despair however. Their genius is that they do not require hundreds of millions of pounds of public investment. Trusts simply require elected officials to
put communities before speculators. It will be interesting to see what Boris does next.