“The Social Housing Green Paper is another delaying tactic to put off fixing the broken housing market”

Hackney Town Hall. Image: RedLentil/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s time to let councils build, says the Labour mayor of Hackney.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I was reminded of those words last week when Sajid Javid told the National Housing Federation’s annual conference that he would start a “nationwide conversation on social housing” by bringing forward a green paper that would be “wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review” of the issues facing the sector.

Presumably this is different to the “proper conversation” that the communities secretary said his damp squib of a Housing White Paper would kick-start just a few months ago.

Javid also said his green paper would be “the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”. Clearly the minister has forgotten about his own government’s Housing & Planning Act – the hugely damaging piece of legislation his predecessor drove through Parliament just a year ago, against the wishes of local councils, housing associations and tenants.

The Tories are now carrying out the third review of why this country’s housing system is fundamentally broken in little over 12 months. And every time they ask people up and down the country what the problem is, they get the same answer – the government’s obsession with leaving the market to deliver the hundreds of thousands of new homes we need simply isn’t working.

The NHF’s own research, published as the minister made his announcement, shows funding for new social homes is at an all-time low – at just 0.2 per cent of GDP.

In 2010, the government decided that there would be longer be any public money to build homes for social rent – and construction of these homes ground to a halt almost overnight. In 2010-11, just under 36,000 social rented homes were started. The next year, work started on just over 3,000.

This is bad for everyone. Bad for the 120,000 children in living in temporary hostels and B&Bs because there’s not a council home for them. Bad for private renters, like those in my borough of Hackney who pay nearly £2,000 per month for a two-bed flat while facing the impossible task of saving for their first home as prices hit record highs. And bad for the government, whose housing benefit bill has spiralled to £25.1bn – costing every man, woman and child in the UK £400 every year – with more and more of that money paid to private landlords, who are propping up a broken market by housing those who can’t find social housing.


Councils like Hackney, the borough I lead, have repeatedly said that they stand ready to fill this void. Despite getting zero funding to build social housing, we’re already building 4,000 homes in the next few years – with more than half for social rent and shared ownership, paid for by some for outright sale. If only ministers would abandon the sell-off of social housing and cut the unnecessary red tape that means we can’t access the finance we need to build, we could do so much more.

It seems to be an answer that Mr Javid doesn’t like. What other reason is there for this latest “conversation”?

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, there is of course a need to make sure that tenants are properly heard. Clearly, that has gone badly wrong in Kensington and Chelsea. But the failings of one Conservative council should not be an excuse to try to further erode the role of local authorities in providing safe, secure and high-quality housing for their residents.

Instead of pointlessly fiddling around in Whitehall, ministers should abandon their market-led dogma and give councils and housing associations the funding and borrowing freedoms they need to get building in big numbers.

The government’s tired old ideas have been failing to fix this housing crisis for seven years, with every previous intervention making the situation worse. Perhaps instead of lecturing from Whitehall, it’s time ministers listened and let those who are managing their fiasco on the frontline take the lead in solving it.

Cllr Philip Glanville is the Labour mayor of Hackney.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.