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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There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).