New MP and former town planner at Allies and Morrison: Urban Practitioners, Helen Hayes, talks about the housing crisis, managing conflicts of interest and how to avoid homogenous cities
Are there any similarites between your former job and being an MP?
In my previous role as a town planner I spent a lot of time talking with communities all over the country about potential changes in their area, understanding different perspectives and trying to propose solutions.
There are certainly some parallels with politics there, but there isn’t really anything that compares with both the privilege and responsibility of being a directly elected representative.
You have worked extensively to restore town centres, how can architecture play a role in reviving the High Street?
The last Labour government really recognised the value of good design in reviving High Streets and other urban areas, in particular through the setting up of the Cabe, regional architecture centres and design review panels, and the commitment to great public projects such as the London 2012 Olympic Park.
We understand the role that architecture and urban design can play
In my constituency each of the four new secondary schools built under the last Labour government is really well designed and the Evelyn Grace Academy designed by Zaha Hadid won the Stirling Prize. Great architecture builds for the long term, helps people to see their area in a different way and contributes to sense of place. Labour oversaw the regeneration of many town and city centres – Glasgow, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester - in a way which prioritised design quality and our track record in government demonstrates that we understand the role that architecture and urban design can play.
So the Labour party really understands what architects do?
I’m a town planner by profession and I strongly believe that planning, urban design and architecture are progressive professions.
I’m not sure many non-architects understand exactly what architects do
Good design is absolutely critical to determining how successful any new development will be, and design can embody many different types of values - architecture can be open and democratic or closed and inward looking. Many people in the Labour Party recognise good design when they see it and recognise the benefits that it brings. Architects work in a highly technical way and I’m not sure that many non-architects (including some planners) do fully understand exactly what architects do – but that doesn’t mean that the value of the profession isn’t fully recognised and appreciated.
What are the biggest challenges facing the UK’s cities and what is your stance on devolution?
In London, our biggest challenge is housing, which increasingly affects everyone. We also face huge challenges related to cuts to the funding for local authorities and other public services, which will make it increasingly difficult for London to meet the needs of a growing population.
Outside of London, our cities need to be able to compete for investment in a European and global market. Devolution is critical to this as cities need to be able to articulate a comprehensive vision which ties up economic investment with skills, spatial planning, housing and good public services. But devolution won’t be effective unless it is supported by appropriate resources and a commitment to invest in infrastructure at a national level. Alongside devolution, in my view it is essential for the future of our cities that we win the argument to remain in the European Union.
Devolution is critical
Our city centres face continued challenges as result of the retail competition from on-line outlets. The cultural offer in town and city centres is vital to their success. If we create distinctive, special places which draw on local heritage, reflect the diversity of local communities and have multiple layers of interest and activities, people will want to spend time there, and the shops will follow.
But if we simply aim to keep on building bigger and better shops, our town and city centres become more and more homogenous and will always grow to be outdated - there will always be a need for another plan in 10 years’ time.
How do you see London changing over the coming decade?
I’d like to see London remain the diverse, vibrant city it has always been, with genuinely mixed communities and great public services. But it will take very strong leadership to deliver the homes and infrastructure we need to achieve this. We need to make sure that London has a growing, productive economy, supporting tech industries and green jobs and to do this we need to protect affordable space for start-up businesses – we can’t let London become too expensive a place to start a business because we need our economy to evolve and innovate.
There can be no doubt that in London we face a housing crisis. Dulwich and West Norwood includes part of Southwark and part of Lambeth.
We’ve 20,000 people waiting for a Council home in each borough, thousands of people living in the private rented sector, some in very poor quality accommodation and others renting privately because they have no realistic prospect of being able to afford to buy a home in London. All of this will have devastating consequences for our communities if we don’t address it - we will lose the skills we need to support London’s economy, and the public sector workers our schools and hospitals rely on, and we will lose our diversity.
Are you worried concerned about the proposed sell off of housing association homes in London?
I’m very concerned about the proposal to fund the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants by forcing local authorities to sell off council homes, and I gave my Maiden Speech in the House of Commons on this subject. Councils like Southwark and Lambeth Councils, which have a significant commitment to building new council homes, will face a situation under the new proposals where they would be forced to sell brand new council homes on the open market before they could be let to the first council tenant. This will make it even harder for those waiting for a council or housing association home and will put more pressure on an already over-heated private rented sector.
I’m very concerned about the proposed extension to Right to Buy
Housing associations have a long tradition of building new homes, but extending the Right to Buy to housing association tenants would undermine the asset base against which housing associations borrow which will hamper their ability to build new homes. It will extend the possibility of home ownership to relatively few, while hampering the aspiration for home ownership of many more.
In your opinion what needs to be done to solve the housing crisis?
We need to build more homes across a range of tenure types - council homes, shared ownership, rent-to-buy, housing association homes and starter homes to buy. At the moment there are huge discrepancies in the commitment of London councils to new affordable homes. We need a London-wide approach to affordable housing which is able to hold both the Mayor and every Council to account for delivering new, genuinely affordable homes. The current definition of ‘affordable’ as up to 80 per cent of market rent is simply unaffordable for most people, let alone those on low incomes. We need to hold developers to account for building the planning permissions they have, and to regulate the private rented sector.
I’m also worried about the government’s proposal to exempt the proposed new starter homes proposals from section 106 tariff and CIL contributions because this will result in added pressure on local infrastructure and services without the funding for the health services, school places, parks and play spaces which make communities successful.
Labour previously backed the Lyons report, will you seek to deliver any of its recommendations in opposition?
Over the next few months the Labour Party will be holding a leadership election, while carefully considering and reviewing the reasons why we lost the election and the best ways to engage with the electorate right across the country. A huge amount of detailed work underpinned the Lyons report and I hope this won’t be lost as we debate the future and our leadership contenders come forward with new policies. From discussions within the Parliamentary Labour Party I am clear we will continue to argue for a supply-led approach to solving the housing crisis which seeks to deliver new homes across a range of different tenures.
How do you respond to claims about conflicts of interest between the work of your former practice and your role in Lambeth?
I worked in town planning and urban design for 18 years and I’ve been an elected representative since 2010. [In the last five years] I have always been extremely careful to manage any potential conflicts of interest between my professional and elected roles.
I took a decision when I was first elected to Southwark Council in 2010 that I would not work professionally anywhere in the vicinity of the area I represent. There has been some discussion in the media of the fact that Allies and Morrison prepared a Supplementary Planning Document for Brixton in 2012 which was adopted by Lambeth Council in 2013 - part of Brixton is in my constituency. I did not work on this document and I was only selected as the Parliamentary candidate for Dulwich and West Norwood in March 2014, so there is no personal conflict of interest.
There is no personal conflict of interest
It is vital that we have MPs with a wide range of experience, and given some of the huge challenges we face in the country at the moment around housebuilding and infrastructure provision, it is extremely important to have MPs with planning experience - I know how the planning system can work to the detriment of local communities, and also how it can benefit them.
And how does it feel to be in the national media spotlight?
Being under intense scrutiny and in the media spotlight goes with the territory of being an MP. If we want to have MPs who are from the area they represent and have a broad range of experience, we have to regard it as normal that sometimes people will have worked on issues or projects which are relevant to the constituency they represent - the important thing is how any potential conflicts are managed.