Sunday, July 30, 2006

Housing costs and London Weighting

Public sector workers such as police, teachers, nurses and firemen cannot afford to buy property in two-thirds of UK towns, as reported yesterday by the BBC following a survey by the Halifax. Property is most unaffordable for those in London and south-east England. This news set me thinking about the outstanding problem of London Weighting payments for local government workers and others in London.

Housing costs are just part of the regionally higher cost of living in London and the South East. Nevertheless according to the Greater London Assembly;

“Provision of affordable housing in London is a key issue; both for those who are responsible for managing, developing and funding housing, and for those who live in the houses provided. Housing now tops the list of Londoners’ concerns, according to independent surveys. For some, it’s the lack of a permanent home: homeless households in temporary accommodation have reached a four year high. For others, such as first time buyers, prices have risen far above what people on average incomes can afford. Many have to commute long distances to find an affordable home, while other Londoners feel trapped in overcrowded or sub-standard housing, whether on inner city estates or the private rented sector.”

The London Weighting Claim

In recognition of these and other problems, the local government unions put forward proposals as long ago as 2001 to increase the inadequate “London Weighting” payments which seek to compensate local government workers in London for these increased costs by raising the payment to £4,000 across the board (still a lot less than – for example – some police officers receive).

Four years ago the GLA recommended that;

“London Weighting in the public sector should be set by private sector comparison, and the appropriate percentage of the total pay-bill in each occupation be made available for London Weighting. In the case of some occupations this would mean a significant increase.”

The GLA proposals would have meant a significant increase for local government workers in London – but in the absence of any Government funding the employers resisted our claim. Local Councils were prepared to sit out several days of disruptive strike action – and weeks of selective action by key groups of workers.

When the unions tried to push the claim to arbitration by a neutral third party the employers withdrew from negotiations rather than allow an independent person to make a judgement of the claim – and it has taken many months to get the negotiating machinery back into operation.

Where next?

We need a serious debate about how London’s trade unions address the issue of the Regionally high cost of living, without compromising our support for national pay bargaining. UNISON has clear national policy in support of regional cost of living payments – but the employers will not lightly be persuaded of the sensible approach suggested by the GLA. This is in spite of the clear evidence that the absence of proper levels of London Weighting payments contributes to high turnover, problems of staff retention and the excessive reliance on expensive agency workers.

We need to be cautious about relying too heavily upon housing costs as the basis for our arguments in relation to London Weighting, since housing costs fall unevenly across the workforce – and fundamentally, the solution to housing problems must be better and more progressive housing policy. (We need more public housing which is truly affordable and secure).

A real Labour Government would pursue an economic policy which redressed regional imbalances – but would also fund the provision of public services in high cost areas so that fair regional weighting payments were affordable. In the absence of a real Labour Government, our trade unions need to return to the question of how to mobilise political and industrial pressure to solve this problem.

Perhaps UNISON activists in London should be thinking about how to address this issue at our Regional Council meeting in the autumn.

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