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.