“Regeneration in Hackney will not mean the net loss of a single council home”

Woodberry Down: one of Hackney's more controversial regeneration schemes. Image: Getty.

Hackney’s deputy mayor on tackling the capital’s housing crisis.

It’s no secret that London faces the biggest housing crisis in its history. Across our city, the most vulnerable are at increasing risk of homelessness, a cycle of temporary accommodation or scrambling to pay extortionate rents in the private rental sector.

If the capital is to continue its claim to be the world’s greatest city, this cannot continue. Everyone must have the chance to access the opportunities London brings – regardless of their income, education or background.

So when the campaign group Sisters Uncut occupied a council flat in my borough of Hackney recently in protest at the difficulty domestic violence survivors face in accessing social housing, they highlighted the scale of some of the issues local authorities in our city face in trying to manage a housing system at breaking point.

We take our duty to victims of domestic abuse seriously. That’s why, despite continued central government cuts, we increased spending on these services last year. We fund the third most refuge spaces of any borough in London, and ensure that survivors who approach us are placed at the front of the queue for emergency housing – alongside those with serious medical problems.

Our first priority is to make sure those at risk are safe – and often that means finding accommodation elsewhere in London and far away from an abusive partner. This nuance is often not reflected in cold statistics; and it simply isn’t true that the council, or the charities we work with, would turn away women in desperate situations who ask for help.

But it is true that things aren’t easy. The government’s decimation of local government funding means that Hackney now has £110m per year less to work with than it did in 2010. At the same time, increased demand for our services means we’re spending £42m more to provide them.

Meanwhile, 11,500 people are on our housing waiting list, with demand far outstripping supply. More than 2,600 families are living in temporary accommodation in Hackney, a figure that has doubled in five years. The Housing & Planning Act will do nothing for these families – which is why I marched, campaigned, and spoke out in Parliament against it. Without national intervention, these figures will only get worse across London. There is only one solution – to build more homes that people can afford to rent and buy.

Councils can’t solve this crisis alone, and we don’t get any money from the government to build social housing. But Hackney is leading the country’s biggest regeneration programme, which will see thousands of council homes that are uneconomical to repair demolished and rebuilt. We’ll end up with more, higher quality council homes than we started with, alongside hundreds more for shared ownership.

And yes – in the absence of any help from ministers – we’re building homes to sell to generate the money we need to invest in that social housing. I want to be very clear: Hackney believes in council housing and we will continue to build it and fight to keep the homes we have.

Regeneration is often labelled as “social cleansing” – including by Sisters Uncut. It’s true that too often in London, those on lower incomes are forced out by private development. But it is a complete fabrication to suggest regeneration in Hackney will mean the net loss of a single council home – we’re actually adding more. And the majority of homes awaiting demolition are used, or will be used, to temporarily house those on the waiting list – including domestic violence survivors.

Government plans to force us to sell up to 700 council homes to fund the extension of Right to Buy, and introduce a “tenant tax” of extra rent for households with incomes of more than £40,000 a year, will put this progress at risk. We estimate we’ll have to spend another £18m a year to find accommodation for the surge of families these policies will keep in temporary accommodation, when they should be in a permanent home they can afford.

We’re doing our bit to build homes – but we’d like to do much more to meet this ever-growing demand. This government’s ridiculous and arbitrary restrictions on the ability of local authorities to build new homes has exacerbated London’s housing crisis and shackled any serious effort to resolve the problem. The new housing minister must do away with this red tape and put two simple steps at the top of their in-tray.

Firstly, remove the cap on borrowing which means councils must find money from ever-dwindling budgets to finance development – an impossible task for most boroughs. This was a key recommendation of the Institute of Public Policy Research’s landmark London Housing Commission, and is backed by an unlikely cross-party coalition of boroughs, business leaders and even Boris’ old housing chief and now No10 advisor, Richard Blakeway.

Secondly, get rid of the restrictions on Right to Buy receipts, which make it intentionally hard for us to reinvest that money in new social housing.

I agree with Sisters Uncut’s inspiring campaign that more needs to be done to avert the crisis in social housing, and I look forward to meeting them. But a national problem also needs national solutions.

Cllr Philip Glanville is deputy mayor of Hackney.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”