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We need to talk about more than Brexit

Author: Bharat Mehta, Advisor, Trust for London

Universal adult suffrage is a cornerstone of democracy and in the UK, we have exercised our right to vote on numerous occasions over the last few years. From 2015’s General Election to last year’s EU Referendum, via the Scots’ narrow rejection of independence, the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London and this week’s Local Government and City Mayoral elections, the Great British public has had a lot to deliberate over. Soon to be added to that list is the General Election on 8 June.

Unsurprisingly, one thing has dominated the campaign thus far: Brexit. The nature and the extent of Brexit is quite rightly a critical issue in this year’s election campaign as there is a lot at stake – the economy and London’s future, especially its pre-eminence in the field of finance; employment rights; future migration; and environmental protection, for example. The London Finance Commission, convened by the Mayor of London, has called for increased devolution to protect the capital from any potential downturn due to Brexit, including greater control over income tax, VAT and other tax revenues.

There are, however, a number of entrenched domestic issues facing people in Britain who are struggling to make ends meet. The cost of living crisis is becoming ever more apparent in the capital – our Minimum Income Standards (MIS) research shows 4 in 10 Londoners cannot afford a decent standard of living, a figure which represents 3.5m Londoners. In the rest of the UK, the ratio stands at 3 in 10. To help ensure more Londoners can reach a decent standard of living a two-pronged approach is needed; on the one hand bringing down costs and on the other, improving incomes.

Below, I’ve picked out two key issues relating to the cost of living that the Trust has funded work on, that the next government must address as a priority.

If it were not for Brexit, perhaps this year’s election strapline would be ‘housing, housing, housing’. Although, given the failure of successive governments to address Britain’s shortage of affordable homes, perhaps not…

Very high and rising housing costs are a key factor in London’s high levels of poverty and inequality. It is obvious we need greater investment in genuinely affordable homes, as well as effective regulation of the private rented sector to protect individuals and families who are just about managing.

The fact that rent in London alone can wipe out gains from the earnings increase represented by the National Living Wage, underlines why tackling high costs is crucial to the living standards of those struggling to make ends meet. We need real action to bring down costs in London and across the rest of the UK, including more genuinely affordable homes closely linked to the living wage.

We are calling on the government, developers and city Mayors to ensure that at least one third of new homes are genuinely affordable to those on low- and middle-incomes. We hope our significant grant to Citizens UK to fund their flagship grassroots campaign will help secure a better housing deal for Londoners, including the completion of an extra 4,000 affordable homes.

MIS research and the Trust’s London’s Poverty Profile (LPP)show incomes are not rising as quickly as costs. A single person living in shared accommodation in London needs to earn at least £20,600 a year to reach a minimum decent standard of living. This rises to £25,700 if they are renting a studio flat.

Whilst costs have continued to rise, there have been a number of changes in support that have particularly affected Londoners, as well as people across the country, such as the cap on tax credit for childcare, the overall benefits cap and the freezing of Local Housing Allowance. More generally, benefits need to keep pace with the real increases in the cost of living.

We also need to improve incomes for those at the bottom and those just about managing through better wages, supported by adequate in-work benefits. We need more employers paying a real Living Wage (£9.75 per hour in London; £8.45 in the rest of the UK), joining the thousands of accredited employers who already pay it.

There are other important domestic issues that one can add – health, education to name two. So, whilst Brexit will rumble on and intensify in the coming days and months, the next government, whoever that may be, would be wise to remember the entrenched everyday problems facing millions of people up and down our nation’s shores.