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Amol Rajan: A noble pledge in danger of being forgotten


Of all the injustices visited on our country's poor folk during what are now known as the boom years, none has been so grave as the rise in house prices. Today it is barely possible for the average man or woman to buy a shoebox-sized home for less than five times national median income, and in London impossible.

This was part of a conspiracy between the political class and the comfortably off, whose votes could be bought by inflating the value of their bricks and mortar. Only now, when boom has given way to bust, and they contemplate how on earth their children will buy houses, are the well-to-do alert to the problem.

But there is a solution: community land trusts (CLT). These are non-profit, community-owned organisations run by a local membership which develops housing at permanently affordable prices. They remove house prices from the depredations of the market, and give the poor a chance of home ownership – an ambition, by the way, that Margaret Thatcher cherished.

The Housing minister, Grant Shapps, described the idea as "inspiring". The Prime Minister, David Cameron, told London Citizens, the community organising group I wrote about last week: "It makes sense and it is in the pages of our manifesto." Launching his housing manifesto on 17 March 2008, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson said: "instead of creating the problem estates of tomorrow we should [build] a network of community land trusts to give hope to people who are indispensable to our city."

And yet now, in a deprived part of east London, there is a grave danger that the Mayor and his officials will not fulfil this pledge. A CLT is promising to sell houses in Tower Hamlets for 25 per cent of market rate. A preliminary decision is due on Friday, but Richard Blakeway, the Mayor's housing adviser, and David Lunts, his interim Director of Housing, are getting cold feet.

Why? Megalomania, mainly. The post-Thatcherite settlement in British politics has settled on a single idea: powerful people. All three parties agree they want an active, engaged citizenry; but the minute ceding power from bureaucrats to people is possible, bureaucrats resile from the idea. It is a perennial truth: politicians who rise to power saying they will give it away cannot be trusted to do so.

Blakeway, Lunts and Boris have just days to rescue the noble idea of community-owned land. If they do not, hypocrisy can legitimately be added to their growing multitude of sins. I shall report their decision in the coming weeks.