Jeremy Corbyn talks housing, county lines, Universal Credit and Arsenal with the Gazette
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Jeremy Corbyn is a busy man. But, away from the tumult of Brexit and his quest to dethrone Theresa May and implement a socialist government, the Labour leader squeezed in a constituency chat with the Gazette. For half-an-hour he dropped matters of state to talk about the issues facing people on the streets and estates of Islington North, which he has represented as MP since 1983.
“The biggest issue is housing,” said Mr Corbyn. “Usually overcrowding or homelessness, some rough sleeping but a lot of hidden homelessness and sofa surfing – it’s just heartbreaking.
“The housing problems I’m getting are just horrific and families could become homeless.
“I don’t blame the council because they’re doing the best they can. The problem is they’re not getting enough support from central government.”
Asked how to solve Islington North’s homelessness problem, and, in particular, how to help the sizable community of rough sleepers living in and around Stroud Green bridge, Mr Corbyn said the first step is providing “immediate” hostel accommodation.
On a practical level, the Islington North veteran has been supporting homeless charities like Shelter From The Storm. He’s also has been “urging Peabody to make sure the visitor centre from HMP Holloway will be used as a shelter until construction begins” on the landmark development deal announced last month.
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This will see the mayor of London loan the housing association £42million to buy the empty women’s prison, in Parkhurst Road, off the Ministry of Justice to build 1,000 homes, of which at least 60 per cent must be “genuinely affordable” – at social or London Living Rent, or for shared ownership.
He said it’s a “great opportunity”, and he credited the community and Islington Council for campaigning together to make it happen.
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Mr Corbyn added: “We have been supporting Haringey and Islington to work together to offer urgent housing to people sleeping under the bridge.
“I meet many of them [the people sleeping rough] when I’m in Finsbury Park – it’s also a problem over the whole country and it’s brought about by the lack of investment in council housing.”
The Labour leader also spoke admiringly of grassroots outreach group Streets Kitchen, which in January led a coalition of agencies in opening a temporary shelter in Hornsey Lane. It’s been touted as a “unique pilot”, which could provide a blueprint for utilising empty building across the capital.
“I agree,” said Mr Corbyn. “It’s [about] persuading landlords that they have a role to play in doing this and helping the homeless people.
“And that’s absolutely right. I support it.”
Children in Islington are being groomed by county lines gangs and trafficked to sell drugs in different cities and rural areas.
And Finsbury Park, in Mr Corbyn’s patch, is known as a hotspot for recruitment. But what does he make of this?
“Looking through the eyes of a teenager is very different to looking through the eyes of older people,” said Mr Corbyn.
“I was talking to a young woman – she was telling me of the pressures that young people are put under: often given quite large sums of money just to carry a package somewhere and from that it just gets into something worse and worse.
“The pressures they are under to have money and look successful and succeed are huge.”
He says there’s “no simple answer” to the county lines crisis, but that authorities should be working with schools to pool understanding of what’s going on, and that young people need to be supported by dedicated youth workers, and have access to youth clubs and sports facilities.
“It’s a question of [taking] a holistic approach and giving support to young people,” he said.
“It’s very instructive walking around an area with teenagers compared to someone your own age. They are seeing dangers you and I wouldn’t notice because they are in a different world.”
The Finsbury Park community is living under the shadow of City North, a Telford Homes development looming over the station.
The beginning of the build coincided with the station’s Wells Terrace entrance being closed off in July 2016, which has bottlenecked footfall to the busy transport hub under Stroud Green Bridge, often causing rush-hour delays.
Wells Terrace’s reopening has also been delayed, and is now projected to open “later in 2019”. City North is set to be unveiled in 2020.
“I’m not happy about happy about the size of the buildings,” said Mr Corbyn. “And I feel that we are getting this massive development in Finsbury Park without very much social housing in it at all.”
The development includes 355 homes, of which only 47 (13pc) are affordable. And “affordable” could here be defined at the former mayor of London Boris Johnson’s standard of 80pc of market value – unrealistic for most people. Mr Corbyn suggested this compares poorly against the approach Sadiq Khan’s taking at HMP Holloway.
“The Finsbury Park community is lovely,” he added. “I have lived in and around it for a long time. I first came to Finsbury Park in 1969.
“I love the area and want to keep its diversity and buzz.
“The closure of the Wells Terrace entrance is difficult for businesses in Finsbury Park and I did try and persuade TfL to get it open more quickly.
Mr Corbyn concedes the Labour leadership puts “enormous pressures” on his time, but says he’s “fiercely” protected his constituency days since he was unexpectedly elected leader in 2015 on the back of a mass mobilisation of the party’s membership.
He added: “There are serious arguments in my office if anybody tries to put anything in my constituency days [in his calendar].
“I think if you don’t maintain your work as a constituency MP then when why are you elected?”
At this point the Gazette asked Mr Corbyn about the breakaway cluster of ex-Labour and Tory MPs who have since rebranded themselves The Independent Group.
“They made their choice,” he said. “I’m sorry anyone has left the Labour Party.”
At this point, the Gazette was told to eat its kebab.
“I was just dealing with a Universal Credit case this morning,” said Mr Corbyn on Wednesday. “Somebody who’s ended up with less money and very frightened.
“So they end up either getting a loan from the DWP which then gets taken from the first benefits they receive because of the gap in the payments.
“Or, if they are really stuck, they end up borrowing money from a loan shark.”
Universal Credit is an online-only system of monthly payments, replacing six working age benefits, including jobseekers’ allowance and housing benefit.
Mr Corbyn said the benefit should be “halted” and replaced with a system which doesn’t leave people worse off.
“The two children policy is brutal when you think about it,” he said.
“Where’s the morality in saying child three or four is less than child two? No parent would ever say that.”
In general, Universal Credit only provides “child elements”, or extra money, for up to two children.
How has the borough changed since he first became MP?
“Housing conditions,” he said. “At one level they [houses] looked much better, and indeed the design and quality of council estates was much better, but overcrowding was probably worse.”
Mr Corbyn, a loyal Arsenal fan, was an open admirer of the former manager Arsene Wenger, who left last year after 22 years.
But he told the Gazette he’s “impressed” by what he’s seen of the new gaffer Unai Emery so far, and believes the Gunners will finish in the top four this season.