Councils can help tackle the housing crisis – but government has to step up

Tower Hamlets. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets on solving the housing crisis.

The housing crisis is one of the most serious issues this country faces – and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is right on the front line of that crisis.

The population of the borough recently passed 300,000, and we have over 20,000 people on the housing waiting list. The lack of affordable housing is a major issue and it’s something residents repeatedly raise with me. 

In spite of their duty, the government has failed to take any real action to address the housing crisis of its own making. Instead local councils are expected to pick up the slack and fill in for the government, while major cuts are made to council funding.

Local authorities can do a good deal of positive work to meet residents’ housing needs, but we are limited in what we can do while the Government is unwilling to offer proper support.

A crucial step in addressing the housing crisis is the actual delivery of more homes. In Tower Hamlets for example, we’re on track to deliver 1,000 council homes. We have also provided over 2,100 affordable homes over the past two years. I was recently joined by the mayor of London to unveil 148 new council homes at the Watts Grove development; all of these developments add up.

But for those in affordable housing, rents are often in fact unaffordable. One of the first actions I took when elected was to set up a Housing Affordability Commission to look at what affordable actually means in our borough. As a result, we’ve introduced new rent levels which can save residents up to nearly £6,000 per year.

We also need to ensure that those renting in the private sector get a fair deal, so I introduced a landlord licensing scheme to drive up standards for private renters’. This joins our new Private Renters’ Charter which backs up renters’ rights.

It’s important that local councils properly scrutinise new developments. Our new Local Plan will set out how the Council intends to manage the scale and pace of development and ensure that all residents benefit from the opportunities growth brings to the borough. We have also written a planning document which ensures transparency in the planning process and encourages reviewing viability at each phase of large schemes, bringing much-needed transparency and accountability.

When I was elected, 174 families were living in B&B accommodation for longer than the six week legal limit. This highlights the role that councils can choose to play: we can either do our utmost to secure much-needed housing, or we can put our head in the sand, much like the government. I was adamant we meet the challenge head on and now no families are left to languish in B&Bs like they were under my predecessor.  

Despite all our efforts, the challenge remains that we have a government that is unprepared and unwilling to take robust action to solve the housing crisis. The government should use the Budget later this month to consider removing the cap to enable councils to borrow to build more council housing. 

Tower Hamlets Council, like other councils up and down the country, will do its level best to meet the challenge – but we desperately need a Labour Government that will back us up with solid action on a national scale.

Labour councils like Tower Hamlets have a positive and innovative housing record they can be proud of. Labour councils backed up by a Labour Government are exactly what we need to end the housing crisis.

John Biggs is the elected Labour mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

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What is to be done? Some modest suggestions on solving the NIMBY problem

Lovely, lovely houses. Image: Getty.

The thing about NIMBYism, right, is that there’s no downside to it. If you already own a decent size house, then the fact a city isn’t building enough homes to go round is probably no skin off your nose. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’ll actively benefit from higher house prices.

So it’s little wonder that campaigning against property development is a popular leisure activity among those looking forward to a long retirement (don’t Google it, it’ll only depress you). It’s sociable, it’s profitable, it only takes a few hours a week, and, best of all, it makes you feel righteous, like you’re doing something good. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t be a NIMBY?

To fight the scourge of NIMBYism, then, what we need to do is to rebalance the risks and rewards that its participants face. By increasing the costs of opposing new housebuilding, we can make sure that people only do it when said development is genuinely a horror worth fighting – rather than, say, something less than perfect that pops up a Tuesday afternoon when they don’t have much else on.

Here are some reasonable and sensible ideas for policies to make that happen.

A NIMBY licence, priced at, say, £150 a month. Anyone found practicing NIMBYism without a licence faces a fine of £5,000. Excellent revenue raiser for the Treasury.

Prison sentences for NIMBYs. Not all of them, obviously – we’re not barbarians – but if the planning process concludes that a development will be good for the community, then those who tried to prevent it should be seen as anti-social elements and treated accordingly.

A NIMBY lottery. All homeowners wishing to oppose a new development must enter their details into an official government lottery scheme. If their number comes up, then their house gets CPOed and redeveloped as flats. Turns NIMBYism into a form of Russian roulette, but with compulsory purchase orders instead of bullets.

This one is actually a huge range of different policies depending on what you make the odds. At one end of the scale, losing your house is pretty unlikely: you’d think twice, but you’re probably fine. At the other, basically everyone who opposes a scheme will lose their entire worldly wealth the moment it gets planning approval, so you’d have to be very, very sure it was bad before you even thought about sticking your head above the parapet. So the question is: do you feel lucky?


NIMBY shaming. There are tribal cultures where, when a member does something terrible, they never see them again. Never talk to them, never look at them, never acknowledge them in any way. To the tribe, this person is dead.

I’m just saying, it’s an option.

A NIMBY-specific bedroom tax. Oppose new housing development to your heart’s content, but be prepared to pay for any space you don’t need. I can’t think of any jokes here, now I’ve written it down I think this one’s genuinely quite sensible.

Capital punishment for NIMBYs. This one’s a bit on the extreme side, so to keep things reasonable it would only apply to those NIMBYs who believe in capital punishment for other sorts of crime. Fair’s far.

Pushing snails through their letter boxes. This probably won’t stop them, but it’d make me feel better. The snails, not so much.

Reformed property taxes, which tax increases in house prices, so discourage homeowners from treating them as effectively free money.

Sorry, I’m just being silly now, aren’t I?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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