The mayor of Tower Hamlets on why London’s councils need power to crack down on rogue developers

The two faces of Tower Hamlets: The Robin Hood Housing Estate and Canary Wharf in 2008. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets on the problem of rogue developers.

A council’s relationship with property developers is always tricky. On the one hand, government cuts to council budgets have meant deals with developers are often the only game in town when it comes to delivering the house building numbers we need to solve the housing crisis. On the other, that gives developers significant power to try and negotiate down levels of affordable housing and increase their profit margins.

For Tower Hamlets council, our focus is on delivering homes which are genuinely affordable to local people. Whilst we have ambitious plans to build new affordable council homes ourselves in the coming years, we also rely on maximising the amount of affordable housing being included in new schemes by developers. Developers, on the other hand, are private companies ultimately focused on their profit margins.

Managing that tricky relationship, balancing very different priorities, is always going to be hard – but it’s in both sides’ interest. That’s why, when developers do cross the line, we must come down hard on them.

Last week was one of those occasions, when overnight a developer illegally demolished three Conservation Area Victorian cottages on the Isle of Dogs. Despite having had requests to demolish them rejected, the owners of the land literally ploughed ahead at the weekend when officials weren’t watching.

The homes, which had survived the Blitz, are now reduced to rubble. For our part the council are looking at all legal options available, including rebuilding these cottages brick by brick – but it opens up a broader question about how development works in our city.

Whilst rogue demolitions are a first for Tower Hamlets, it’s not unheard of. Last year, the Carlton Tavern, a historic pub in Maida Vale was illegally levelled by developers. The Council ordered it to be rebuilt but the developers ignored the ruling in the end, forcing the secretary of state to set up a public enquiry which ruled the developers should rebuild the site.

London is one of the fastest changing cities in the world, with my borough of Tower Hamlets home to massive amounts of development. To make that work we need constructive and respectful relationships between councils, developers and local people. We might not always agree – but more often than not we should be able to strike a balance.

The mayor of London has talked a lot about punishing rogue landlords; we might consider extending that to developers too. I’d like to see action to crack down on bad practice, potentially banning rogue developers from acquiring planning permission on sites they have cleared illegally, but that would require a change in legislation.

To make development work for the capital, we need it to be done in partnership with local people, not bulldozed through in secret.

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


A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?

Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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