Housing associations need to decide if they are independent charities or branches of the state

14 Jun

Are housing associations part of the public sector? This is a question that the statisticians at the ONS have agonised over in recent years. It is not just a matter of technical classification. The issue is of significance in the Government’s efforts to boost home ownership. The 2015 Conservative Manifesto proposed a right to buy for housing association tenants. But the associations then argued they were independent charities and should not be forced to sell their property. There were then some feeble efforts at voluntary “pilot” schemes with modest discounts and taxpayer reimbursements.

Boris Johnson is now seeking to revive the idea but the same tension applies. Michael Gove, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary, has been put in charge of the policy but he shows little sign of agreeing with it. In April he gave a speech to Shelter suggesting there was already too much “tilting” towards home-ownership in housing association schemes and that, instead, the number for social rent should be increased. Politicians are fond of making declarations celebrating social housing, calling for the “stigma” to end and so on. But what of the views of the council tenants and housing association tenants themselves? Are they appreciative of their subsidised municipal serfdom? Mostly not. 55 per cent would rather own a property given a choice; only 16 per cent disagreed.

Gove is being despatched to negotiate with the housing associations. But given the stance he has already taken, I fear he will go “naked into conference chamber” – to quote one of his predecessors, Nye Bevan.

However, if the Government does take a robust stance with the housing associations, it should be to give them a choice. They can go back to their roots as independent charities. Then they can make their own decisions on selling or renting property, who to accommodate and on what terms. The state would cease to impose obligations on them. But nor would it provide subsidies – either direct or via Section 106 property deals. They can’t expect to have it both ways. It’s rather like the University Vice Chancellors suckling at the taxpayer’s teet but then being most indignant when their pay is scrutinised.

If some housing associations choose the path of independence it would be welcome. Lifting bureaucracy could allow for greater compassion and innovation. Octavia Hill was a pioneer with her work providing housing for the poor in the 1830s. Among her core beliefs was that this provision should be managed and funded independently of the state. This social reformer warned presciently that “municipal socialism” would mean indiscriminate demolition and the destruction of communities.  In 1869 she declared: “Where a man persistently refuses to exert himself, external help is worse than useless”; a powerful critique of what a century and a bit later would be called the “dependency culture.”

Charitable status would still mean certain constraints applied. Indeed they should be applied more rigorously. For instance, it is high time that housing associations as well as councils stopped clinging on to expensive properties. As Policy Exchange has said:

“There is a strong case that housing associations’ charitable status carries a responsibility to use scarce resources appropriately. Charity trustees are legally obliged to invest sensibly.”

The law needs to be tightened to put the matter beyond doubt. It is absurd that one family can hit the jackpot and be allocated a housing association property worth millions of pounds. Proceeds from selling “high value” social properties are sometimes linked to the right to buy. (The Sunday Times reports Gove objecting to this.) But it would make sense for those sales to happen anyway.

Anyway, there could be an alternative path for housing associations to sign up as agencies of the state. They could be put on an approved register and be funded by the state and accommodate those allocated to them by the state. One of the obligations would be that their tenants would have the right to buy.

For right to buy to have much impact, the discounts, for all social housing, would need to be sharply increased. Under the existing scheme for council tenants, the maximum discount is £116,200 in London or £87,200 across the rest of England. But average property prices in London are over £700,000. In England generally, the average is over £300,000. There should also be a “right to shared ownership” – with tenants given a small equity stake for free provided they take on responsibility for repairs.

There should be a requirement for replacement properties to be built. But there is no justification for this imposing an additional cost on the taxpayer. Councils and housing associations should build on surplus land that they own (such as empty garages.) About two thirds of the cost of new homes is the land – the construction is only a third. It would also be possible to include a mix of market housing in the development to ensure viability. Plus there are the proceeds from the sale of high value vacant social properties. Plus, of course, even with very large discounts, the right to buy proceeds would still be significant.

It is imperative for a formula to be agreed which does not rely on taxpayer subsidy for replacement building. Firstly, because that would severely ration the number of sales that could be funded – given the state of the public finances.

Secondly, it would introduce a valid grievance among millions renting privately who would like to buy, but can’t afford to. Why should their taxes pay for it? By contrast, the alternative approach I have outlined would also increase the supply of housing coming on to sale on the open market. So it would help the private renters wanting to buy too.

Martin Luther King said:

“You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favourite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”

Unity is needed to reach the promised land of home ownership. There is no need for a housing association right to buy to do private renters any harm. But the Government’s current plans risks doing so.

The post Housing associations need to decide if they are independent charities or branches of the state first appeared on Conservative Home.

Jason Perry: In Croydon, hope was the key to our success

3 Jun

Jason Perry is the newly-elected Executive Mayor of Croydon.

As many of the results from the local elections were announced on the next morning, those watching BBC London News would be forgiven for thinking that the picture for the Conservative Party in London was almost entirely negative. But over the next four days, fantastic gains were announced, including in Enfield, in Harrow, and eventually, in Croydon.

I am so proud to have been elected Mayor of this great Borough, ending eight years of Labour administration. Not only that, but we made historic gains on the Council, including taking three seats out of four in New Addington – previously a Labour stronghold.

This election was personal to me. Croydon is my home, it’s the place where my parents raised me, and the place where my wife and I chose to raise our own children. This Borough has given me so many opportunities throughout my life. I was born on a Council estate and went to a great local school. My parents’ Council home in Hamsey Green enabled them to set up a small family business, which I ran myself prior to becoming Mayor.

Anybody who has followed local politics over the last couple of years will know about the monumental failures of Croydon’s Labour-run Council:

  • £1.6 billion pounds of debt;
  • £200m lent to their own property developer which went bust;
  • £76 million spent on the botched refurbishment of a concert hall;
  • Buying a hotel for £30 million and selling it for a £5 million loss;
  • Council tenants – like I used to be – living in “slum housing”;
  • Vast swathes of cuts like never before to our public services, including cutting up to £1,500 from people’s Council Tax Support.

These failures naturally drew some traditional supporters away from Labour. But campaigning on a message of negativity is not enough. Labour campaigned hard on their message of taking Croydon in a “New Direction,” with an experienced Mayoral candidate in Val Shawcross.

In order to win over previous Labour voters, and take those vital second-preference votes from people voting Green, Lib Dem, or Independent, we had to prove that the local Conservatives were the right team to lead the Borough forwards. Our campaign of hope did just that.

We showed that we would focus on residents’ priorities by pledging to restore the Graffiti Removal Team which Labour axed. We proved to residents that a Conservative Council would listen to local people by promising to reform our planning system. And – echoing a similar Conservative campaign in Kidsgrove – I pledged to re-open a Leisure Centre in Purley that the previous Labour administration shut. I am delighted to say that during my first week as Mayor, I have hit the ground running, and taken tangible action to deliver on all three of these things.

The message of hope also meant that our supporters and volunteers had a positive message to get excited about. Every leaflet that a deliverer put through a letterbox was like a brick towards the building of a better Croydon. Canvassers were able to talk about our plans to provide mentors for young people excluded from school. Or to adopt a Tenants’ Charter that will meaningfully improve housing conditions for council tenants. The campaign was a positive and optimistic one, and winning by just under 600 votes (out of the 95,000 cast) was a testament to the hard work put in by so many. Our message resonated across the Borough, with swings in some wards of over 12 per cent towards the Conservatives.

Over the next four years, I will work collaboratively with local councillors of all parties to restore real hope and pride in our Borough. Our biggest challenges lie ahead – including sorting out the Council’s debt and delivering a large-scale regeneration of our neglected Town Centre. But Croydon has overcome large challenges before, and I know that our best days still lie ahead.

Reviving Right to Buy for social housing leaves private tenants out in the cold

4 May

Welcome to the second instalment of ‘Small Solutions to Big Problems’, where we take a look at steps the Government is taking to address the cost-of-living crisis.

This isn’t a formal series, of course, and ministers have not officially adopted that slogan. But it nonetheless seems to be the spirit in which the issue is being approached.

Last week, for example, we looked at how deregulating childcare is a worthwhile enterprise but only a small step towards tackling the deep structural issues which make it so expensive to start a family. (Ryan Bourne has much more detail.)

We might say much the same thing about the revived proposals to give social housing tenants the right to buy their homes.

To be clear, that does mean that it is better than nothing. As Robert Colvile explains, this is in fact merely reviving the right that state tenants had before council housing stock was transferred over to housing associations.

The plan set out in 2015, and since piloted, also involves compensating HAs and building new stock, which puts to bed the old argument about the original scheme running down the supply of social housing (although as Colvile again points out, that supply remains much higher than average).

But as Polly Mackenzie of Demos points out, on its own the policy is clearly inadequate to the crisis in home-ownership facing the country.

It creates a huge disparity between the support offered to people who have ended up in social housing (“a subsidy of up to £100k”) and those in the private rented sector (“a tiddly Help to Buy ISA and equity loans that have to be repaid”).

It also distributes the subsidy on the basis of historic rather than current need – those social tenants in a position to buy will most likely be those who have been in social housing a long time, stabilising their situation and benefiting over a long span from paying lower rent than their counterparts in the private market.

Meanwhile, as I have written before, those vehicles which have been set up to support first-time buyers outwith the social housing sector all feature arbitrary limits on their purchasing power which aren’t even index-linked:

“The £450,000 limit has been in place ever since LISAs were first introduced. Yet according to the ONS, between December 2016 and December 2021 the average house price in England rose by more than 24 per cent. The purchasing power of a LISA is falling every year.”

It is a sign of how totally the Government seems to be ignoring the rented sector that index-linking or better yet scrapping these caps, which seem to serve no obvious purpose and would cost the Government next to nothing, doesn’t appear to have been even considered yet.

Even then, there is only so much that fiddling with demand can do when the underlying cause of the housing crisis is decades of supply restrictions. And Boris Johnson has abandoned planning reform, so he clearly doesn’t intend to do anything about that.

It’s the same in so many areas of policy – here’s a cheery thread of just a few, to which we should definitely add our woeful record at building infrastructure – Grant Shapps’ decision not to proceed with the underground station for HS2 at Manchester being just the latest example.

These problems are not all this Government’s fault. Many of these problems are long in the making and have deep structural roots which long predate Johnson’s premiership or even David Cameron’s. Arguably the Party’s relatively weak position in the House of Commons from 2010 to 2019 was a barrier to tough action, as when Nick Clegg blocked sensible childcare reform.

But the Government has a handsome overall majority now. It must do better than even the most worthwhile technocratic tinkering.

Daniel Thomas: On the doorsteps of Barnet, I’m hearing more complaints about the Mayor of London than about the PM

28 Apr

Cllr Daniel Thomas is the Leader of Barnet Council.

Journalists like to ask how the Prime Minister is affecting conversations on the doorstep. The truth is, I’m hearing more complaints about Sadiq Khan than Boris Johnson. Khan has racked up City Hall council tax by almost nine per cent. The Mayor has made parts of Barnet feel unsafe due to under-policing. Now he wants to clobber outer-London motorists with ULEZ and pay-per-mile. Whether we like it or not, the Mayor is an integral part of local government in London which means his policies and their consequences are fair game in this election.

Sir Keir Starmer launched Labour’s local election campaign in Barnet, but all he could talk about was ‘partygate’, anything but his own party’s atrocious track record in town halls across London. In Barnet, we are surrounded by Labour-run councils, all of which have higher council tax, fewer bin collections, lower educational attainment, and are hell-bent on penalising motorists. The car is essential for outer-London radial travel, yet Labour boroughs are imposing LTNs and raking in fines from confused drivers. Enfield has already raised £4 million which will no doubt be spent on more unused segregated cycle lanes.

Labour-run Harrow reached the shameful milestone of exceeding £2,000 for Band D council tax. Barnet charges almost £300 less. How can Labour councillors and Mayors say they’re concerned about the cost of living whilst taking more money from local taxpayers? I welcomed Government funding for the £150 council tax rebate (on behalf of 80,000 Barnet households); Labour and Lib Dem councillors did so through gritted teeth.

As for levelling up, decades ago we took the brave decision to knock down our worst council estates and start again. New social housing was paid for from the proceeds of new private housing. We even managed to fund new schools and community centres. I knew it was a success when I heard a Labour councillor complain that a regeneration area “would not be deprived for much longer” when we agreed to build new council offices there. The new developments are no longer concentrations of poverty; they are mixed vibrant communities that residents, private and social, are proud of. The difference between our aspiration and Labour’s desire to keep everyone as a client of the state could not be more stark than it is in Barnet.

The most uncertain aspect of this election is the new ward boundaries. My view is that we still have more routes to retain control than Labour, which explains why they’re targeting Conservative strongholds. There are enough seats within the obvious marginal wards for Labour to win control, but they need to win all of them at the same time, something they’ve never achieved. The fact they’re targeting longshots reveals that they’re not confident of their chances in all the marginal wards. This is understandable given that we won a seat from Labour in a by-election last year and one of their wards turned blue at the London Assembly elections.

Andy Street: Levelling Up means clamping down on unscrupulous landlords

22 Feb

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Talk of ‘Levelling Up’ can be dominated by regional investment and infrastructure projects, overlooking the fact that social and community issues lie at the heart of the concept.

In this column I want to talk about a growing national problem which unfortunately has its epicentre right here in the West Midlands: the issue of Exempt Housing.

Exempt supported housing is accommodation for those with few other housing options, such as people on benefits who have additional needs – perhaps due to addictions, criminal histories, mental health issues, learning disabilities, or because they are escaping domestic violence.

About 600,000 people in the UK rely on supported housing at any one time, from care leavers needing somewhere to stay, to people with mental health problems seeking independence.

Landlords get a significant premium in extra housing benefit for each tenant they house – but are supposed to provide support and care in addition to accommodation.

Crucially, by applying for registered provider status, landlords are exempted from local licensing regulations, leaving councils powerless to act over how tenants are treated or the quality of accommodation.

It is this ability for landlords to avoid scrutiny that has led to the sector being described as the ‘Wild West’, and accusations of exploitative provision.

In recent years there has been a worrying growth of poorly managed, unsafe exempt accommodation, delivering inadequate support and safeguarding, particularly for people who experience homelessness and have multiple support needs.

We have seen a rise in unscrupulous agencies exploiting gaps in the national regulatory regime to claim higher Housing Benefit levels while providing minimal or no levels of support.

This is why the issue of exempt housing falls squarely under the remit of ‘levelling up’. We are seeing some of the most vulnerable residents accommodated in some of the poorest housing, without adequate support, trapped in unemployment – and all paid for by central government.

The exponential growth in the numbers of buildings used for this kind of accommodation is also changing the nature of neighbourhoods, much to the dismay of locals. Information published by homeless charity Crisis in October 2021 showed that nationally 153,701 households in Great Britain were housed in exempt accommodation as of May 2021. This represents a 62 per cent increase from 2016 to 2021.

Increasingly, Birmingham is being viewed as the capital of a problem which is also taking root in places like Liverpool, Bristol and Manchester.

Indeed Robert Alden, Conservative candidate in the Erdington by-election, has been a long-standing campaigner on this very issue, as the area in north Birmingham is attracting more and more exempt housing. Recently he backed residents on the Pitts Farm Estate after a family home in a cul-de-sac was turned into exempt accommodation, prompting fears that more would follow.

These fears are understandable. The fact is the number of supported housing rooms in Brum has doubled in the past three years. Some 20,000 people live in exempt accommodation in the city, while hundreds more live in the sector in other parts of the region, from Coventry to Wolverhampton.

Some experts believe the growth in Birmingham is down to the abundance of large, relatively inexpensive properties that can be easily converted into houses in multiple occupation (HMOs).

As a region, we have worked hard to develop policies and structures to improve housing. The West Midlands Combined Authority’s Homelessness Taskforce was created to ensure a unified approach between our seven constituent boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Last year Birmingham became one of five cities to be handed Government cash to pioneer ways of driving up standards, with the city using its £1.8m grant to launch new Quality Standards, a Charter of Rights to make tenants aware of the service they should expect, and increasing inspections.

Providers and landlords are urged to voluntarily sign up to the new Quality Standards, agreeing that their accommodation can be inspected to help highlight best practice.

However, this laudable scheme has no power to force landlords to get involved, and while it has received support from some providers the conspicuous absence of many more illustrates that more must be done.

Clearly, this issue needs to be tackled. That’s why I was pleased to be able to provide evidence, with the WMCA, to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee inquiry into the sector.

This is something that I feel passionate about, which is why I have been calling for this inquiry for some time. As national policies are drawn up, I know the West Midlands can provide vital insights into the impact of exempt housing.

The submission highlights what needs to be done to rectify the clear problems affecting the sector, and discourage the elements that are exploiting those who use it. So, what needs to be done?

A proper national accreditation scheme is needed for landlords, supported by additional regulation and a national database of providers’ performance. More local control is vital too. The supported housing funding model must be reviewed, providing resources for local authorities to oversee any new regulations. Finally, enforcement powers will be needed to clean up the dodgy landlords who have turned this sector into the Wild West.

This could be by strengthening the role of the Regulator for Social Housing role and its ability to effectively monitor the sector, especially where providers supply accommodation and support.

Greater enforcement powers could also tackle providers who do not effectively manage Anti-Social Behaviour, including additional Community Safety powers.

Ultimately, getting a firm grip on this issue will ensure better use of hundreds of millions of pounds of public money, at a time when all budgets are under intense pressure. If we don’t address these issues, we can expect the exponential growth of this sector to continue, and more and more communities to experience what is happening here and in other major cities.

That means more vulnerable residents trapped in some of the poorest housing. It means pressures that potentially drive-up homelessness just at the point when, post-pandemic, we are seeing genuine progress in getting people off the streets through schemes such as Housing First.

And it means more neighbourhoods seeing their character change, as landlords buy up family homes to create the HMOs that allow them to reap the benefits of a dysfunctional funding system.

Levelling Up isn’t just about railway lines and city centre regeneration, it’s about supporting communities by tackling the tough issues that have seen them left behind other more prosperous areas. Bringing to heel the unscrupulous landlords that exploit the most vulnerable in those communities is a good place to start.

Judy Terry: Unlike some local authorities, Suffolk County Council is focused on balancing the books

11 Feb

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Evidence that up to 100,000 children have not returned to school since the pandemic, is a ‘red flag’, according to the Children’s Commissioner, who has launched an inquiry with local authorities and the government to identify what has happened to them. Have they moved house; are they being homeschooled; are they sick or playing truant? Could they be caught up in gang culture, or even parental abuse?

Every day seems to bring more bad news, with London hitting a record for teenage stabbings.

Recent tragedies, when parents were allegedly complicit in the murder of their own young children, as well as two sets of twins killed by a fire when left at home alone, has highlighted the importance of effective social services, investigating and monitoring reported incidents and outcomes.

Sadly, this means that more children end up in care for their own safety; nationally, the figure is expected to hit 100,000 by 2025.

There is a general assumption that children’s suffering is confined to areas of deprivation, but that is far from the truth. Youngsters – across all levels of society – can be vulnerable to homelessness and abuse, both physical and emotional. These problems are exacerbated by international conflicts, as currently experienced in parts of the Middle East, where children are – literally – starving and suffering terrible injuries, whilst others are caught up in illegal Channel crossings.

For example, although fewer local children are going into care in Suffolk, in the last five years, there has been an overall 13 per cent increase, rising to 919 in 2020/21. This is partly due to the number of unaccompanied Asylum-seeking children being accommodated, and staying longer without permanent solutions, as part of the Home Office’s national transfer scheme.

The situation is further exacerbated by a shortage of foster carers, and the Suffolk Fostering Service is appealing for people to come forward if they are able to offer a safe and loving home, whether full or part time.

Cllr. Stephen Burroughes, who has responsibility for Fostering and Adoption, explains the vital role foster carers play in the lives of such vulnerable young people, “helping them grow into successful confident and resilient young adults. It is very rewarding.” Rated Outstanding by Ofsted, the service offers 24-hour support, competitive fees and 21 days paid leave each year, with details available here. Giving vulnerable children security, and getting them into education, so they can develop their talents, enjoying their lives, is vital to communities and wider society.

As demand continues to increase, children’s services are at the heart of Suffolk County Council’s new 2022/23 budget plans, with extra resources from the proposed 2.99 per cent council tax rise taking the budget from £598.2m to £625.4m, equating to an additional 80p per week for Band D properties and 62p for Band B, which are most common across Suffolk.

Other priorities include adult care, Highways, flood prevention and footpath improvements, as well as decarbonising council-owned buildings.

Cllr. Richard Rout, Cabinet Member for Finance & Environment says:

“We don’t take these decisions lightly, especially with the cost of living rising too, but responses to our public consultation acknowledged the additional pressures we face, and the importance of funding essential care for children and adults.

“We are proud of our careful financial management in delivering key services, but if anyone has concerns about paying their council tax, they may be eligible for the Council Tax Reduction scheme, managed by our borough and district councils, helping those on a low income.”

The final budget will be debated at a Full Council meeting on 17th February.

Meanwhile, following a nine-month procurement process, the council has announced a property development alliance with Lovell Partnerships to build 2,800 low carbon homes, with new schools, employment land, and public spaces. Five locations on council-owned land have been identified in Lowestoft, Mildenhall, Bramford, West Row, and Newmarket.

The 50-50 partnership is intended to deliver around £700m of gross development value over the 15-year agreement, with the option to extend by five years. Contracts are expected to be concluded in the spring, with the joint venture established in the summer.

In addition to providing much needed social housing and new community facilities, the partnership will generate significant funds for the council over the long term for strategic expenditure and investment.

Lovell’s Regional Managing Director, Simon Medler, is delighted:

“Opportunities of this scale, bringing so much local opportunity and benefit, are rare. We have been based in the East Anglia region for nearly 20 years, delivering thousands of new homes, employing many local staff and partnering with established local supply chains.”

Unlike some local authorities which are facing bankruptcy, Suffolk County Council is focused on balancing the books, working with the private sector and local communities, to deliver on its promises.

Jonathan Cook: In Wandsworth, we are doing what we can to help with higher energy bills

21 Jan

Cllr Jonathan Cook is the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing and Community Services on Wandsworth Council.

We all know the coming year will be tough for many, particularly those on lower incomes. Rising cost of living pressures, global energy market turmoil, and recovering from the pandemic and its consequences will combine to create financial challenges for many, and real hardship for some. Covid focussed our attention on supporting those most in need. After a difficult 24 months, Wandsworth Council continues to seek ways to protect the most vulnerable, and to support residents and businesses, helping them get back on their feet and to thrive.

Wandsworth froze Council Tax in April 2021, seeing it as the single most effective thing we could do as a council to support as many of our residents as possible. This move kept our Council Tax the lowest in the UK, helping those with the least, the most. Now as we enter 2022 with signs that the pandemic is finally easing, but far from over in terms of its impact, in the same spirit we intend to freeze our council energy charges this coming year, together with our rents.

Energy costs are an area of real concern. Huge shifts in global markets look set to lead to rises for consumers in excess of 50 per cent in the coming months. That’s why we intend to freeze those costs under our control – council heating and hot water charges – for the coming year.

In addition, we intend to freeze our council rents. With some 17,000 tenants (and a similar number of leaseholders) Wandsworth council directly manages a significant housing stock. We have long had a focus on setting high standards, offering good service and value for money. As with energy charges freezing rents is a choice, and one we are able to make in support of our residents because of many years of careful management of finances.

Prudent management of energy contracts in recent years has given us scope to freeze our heating and hot water charges for the year from April. Reserves accumulated in the past few years, with flexible procurement and hedging strategies, have given us the leeway that now enables Wandsworth Council to take this action.

Freezing charges at this challenging time will make it easier to cope with what appears to be a long term trend in energy costs, particularly gas on which, for the time being, we will all continue to depend as our longer term decarbonisation strategies gather pace. Of course, we won’t be able to defer the impact of rising energy prices indefinitely, but we can help now, giving people breathing space as we all get used to the emerging new realities of energy costs. This is in addition to a freeze on rents for the same period.

These measures are possible because of more than 40 years of Conservative stewardship at Wandsworth. They also build on support measures through the pandemic – to local business, our town centres, community hubs, constantly open green spaces, and so much more – all helping the borough’s residents through the challenges of the last 24 months, and now concentrated on helping our residents bounce back and prosper post-pandemic. It’s why so many of our residents feel Wandsworth is a great place to live, with some of the highest satisfaction levels for any council in the UK, and why our aim is to ‘Keep Wandsworth Special’.

Wandsworth is able to do this with an ambitious 1,000 home ‘Housing for All’ programme of new council-led building on council land well underway; a £1.1bn estate regeneration gathering pace, with the first new homes occupied, and a £500m estate regeneration ‘on the blocks’ awaiting support from London’s Mayor – a further 3,600 new homes.

These initiatives demonstrate Wandsworth’s commitment to improving life chances for residents, and echo the leadership shown by the council in the Nine Elms regeneration, where some 20,000 new homes and 25,000 new jobs are supported by the recent opening of London’s first new tube line in 20 years – the Northern Line Extension to Battersea Power Station – entirely privately funded with no public money toward its £1.3bn cost.

All-in-all it demonstrates what can be achieved through long-term prudent management of resources, and that Wandsworth Council is firmly on the side of its residents – improving lives and opportunities – especially those who may need additional support at this difficult time.

So, in these chilly winter months, two freezes that we hope will be welcomed by residents in Wandsworth are to council rents and energy charges.

Simon Danczuk: Labour has mis-diagnosed social housing as a class war issue

18 Jan

Simon Danczuk was the Labour MP for Rochdale from 2010 to 2017 but voted Conservative at the last General Election. He is a business consultant and co-author of a forthcoming book ‘Scandal at Dolphin Square: A Notorious History.’

In the 1980s, Labour politicians did an excellent job in exposing Conservative Council Leader Dame Shirley Porter’s infamous ‘homes for votes scandal.’ And after many years of neglect, social housing is back on the agenda today.

Michael Gove, the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is attempting to move the government on from the cladding scandal that surrounded the Grenfell Tower fire. He is trying to address the issue once and for all, following his predecessor, Robert Jenrick’s perceived failure to tackle the issue.

The Government published a Social Housing White Paper in November 2020, including a Social Housing Charter, which “sets out the actions the government will take to ensure that residents in social housing are safe, are listened to, live in good quality homes, and have access to redress when things go wrong.” But over a year later, there has been little movement.

Political tension has been heightened by ‘George Clarke’s Council House Scandal’ for Channel 4 and, more recently, by the excellent investigative journalism from ITV’s Dan Hewitt titled ‘Surviving Squalor: Britain’s Housing Shame,’ which highlighted social housing tenants living in appalling conditions.

It is hardly surprising that the cross-party Parliamentary Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee has just launched an inquiry into the subject.

Addressing these issues hasn’t so far been a priority for this Government. The pandemic has consumed so much of its time and energy, it’s only natural that some issues have been neglected. But this is an area where solutions are notoriously tricky.

Speaking from experience as a tenant, former councillor, MP, and member of this very Select Committee, I believe the solution requires a cultural change, rather than endless legislation. Having rented from a housing association, I know only too well the obstacles facing tenants. These organisations can be bureaucratic, slow to respond to problems, and more interested in covering their own backs than serving their tenants.

This experience was recently reinforced for me when a friend, who lives in a London borough council house, had a leaking roof. The damage was so severe that the family had to relocate to a hotel for several weeks. Council and contractor surveyors came and went, yet little actual repair work had been completed by the time they were forced to return. Eventually, they were transferred back to the hotel, as surveyors assessed the situation and repair work finally got underway. When they were finally moved back into their home, they found that the work was of such a poor quality much of it is going to have to be done again. Half a year in and what should have taken weeks is still ongoing and is far from complete.

If only this were the exception. Time as a local and national politician, with the casework those roles bring, has sadly taught me that social housing providers serve their own needs before those of their tenants.

Experience dealing with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) showed that their idea of tenant consultation was nothing more than a sham, while regulation in the sector was light touch, to say the least. Their unpopular and unnecessary proposal to demolish perfectly good housing at Seven Sisters flats is a case in point. There was little appetite for the project, tenants wanted to remain, and local councillors have remained opposed. Yet, because senior RBH officers prioritised their vain ‘regeneration’ project above all else for years, millions of pounds have been wasted and tenants have been caused needless worry.

Since the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1885, there have been umpteen related pieces of legislation passed regarding the issue. But you can pass as many laws as you like, the simple fact remains that until vested interests are tackled and poor performance properly addressed, the situation won’t change. And yet they desperately need to.

Labour has misdiagnosed social housing as a class war issue. This misses the point and does them an electoral disservice. Needless and unhelpful ideological rhetoric won’t help social housing tenants, who are supposed to be exactly the kind of core voters Labour is supposed to protect. The social housing crisis isn’t an abstract idea for these people, it’s their daily lives. They know it’s really about a lack of organisational leadership, a failure of adequate checks and balances, and incompetence going unchallenged within housing organisations across the country.

Labour avoids addressing these real problems around social housing because they fear the public sector unions and dare not risk alienating the middle class senior housing officers who now make up their new core voters. This lazy politics will ultimately backfire.

With Gove, someone with a reputation for getting things done, supported by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee, very ably chaired by Clive Betts MP, my prediction is that the social housing sector is finally going to get the change it so desperately needs.

The ‘homes for votes’ scandal destroyed Dame Shirley Porter’s political career. By playing politics with social housing, Labour is playing a dangerous game which could cost them dear.

Jason Perry: Why I am standing to be the directly-elected Mayor of Croydon

7 Dec

Cllr Jason Perry is the Leader of the Opposition on Croydon Council and the Conservative Candidate to be Croydon’s first directly-elected Mayor in May 2022.

In recent years, Croydon has found itself mentioned more and more frequently in ConservativeHome articles – and sadly never for a good reason.

Croydon’s Labour-run Council was officially declared bankrupt last year, having accrued well over £1.5 billion in debt – the first London Council to go bust in 20 years. The failure of Croydon Labour to manage the Council’s finances since 2014 has seen them borrowing an outrageous £15,000 every single hour, and recently led to it begging the Conservative Government for a £120 million bailout just to keep the lights on.

Labour loaned over £200 million of taxpayer money to their wholly Council-owned property developer ‘Brick by Brick’, who then proceeded to ride roughshod over local residents concerns, building on their green spaces and amenity land. To add insult to injury, that land was, more often than not, given to them for free by the Labour Council. But, their monopoly games did not stop there – going on to borrow millions of ££ to waste on their choices, £30 million on a town centre hotel, £50 million to buy a shopping precinct, and £76 million spent on a botched refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls arts complex – where they didn’t even change the worn seats and the roof still leaks! All whilst slashing basic services and hiking Council Tax levels to one of the highest in the country.

But worse than all of that: Labour did this whilst completely ignoring warnings from the auditors, the Conservative Opposition, and desperate local residents. We all saw it coming, we warned Labour time and time again, but they accused us of scaremongering – all for fear of us being proven right. What short-sighted egotism. It’s exactly that kind of arrogant approach that leads people to despise politicians.

In national politics the sums bandied about to fund services are huge – a few billion here and a few billion there – it’s hard for most of us to comprehend what it means in reality when financial management goes wrong, but residents in Croydon have been forced to find out the hard way. To reiterate, Croydon’s failing Labour Council has borrowed £15,000 per hour since coming into office in 2014, and yet our bins aren’t being emptied; fly-tipping and rubbish is left to pile high on our streets; the grass in our parks and cemeteries isn’t cut; graffiti is no longer cleaned – in short, our communities look increasingly abandoned.

But it’s the most vulnerable in our borough that Labour’s cuts are hitting hardest. Under Labour, the Council Tax Support Scheme – which reduces Council Tax for the most vulnerable residents – is set to be cut by £5.7m, affecting an estimated 20,000 households. They’ve slashed the welfare team, and some 7,000 residents are seeing their social care packages cut. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Croydon’s problems are not just financial. Recently, one of our Council candidates went to see Raymond, who lives in a sheltered housing block in the north of the borough. He contacted us because he was desperate to expose the appalling conditions of his Council-managed block. We found mouldy walls, water-damaged ceilings, missing fire extinguishers, and more. He told us how he was forced to go for nine weeks without any heating or hot water. Despite all of this, his local Labour Councillors have been absent throughout, having only knocked on his door a single time in the last decade (during an election week).

Raymond’s story would be bad enough if it were a one-off, but this has come months after terrible conditions in another block of Council flats were exposed on ITV’s Surviving Squalor, and at the same time as reports about a third block in West Croydon are beginning to surface. This is not the fault of the bankruptcy: this is the result of sheer systemic incompetence, as well as absent Labour Councillors who ignore residents’ pleas for help, thinking they’ll win their ‘safe’ seats next time around anyway.

And it’s for all these reasons that just over a month ago, every single ward in the Borough voted in a referendum for change – and voted to move to a Directly Elected Mayor for Croydon. 80 per cent of residents backed this change, despite Croydon Labour’s campaign to stick with the current failed system. Sick and tired of being ignored, tens of thousands of local people voted for change – and if they choose to elect me to be that Mayor in May 2022, change is exactly what they’ll get. A change for the better, for Croydon.

I am proud to be a Croydonian, born and bred. I live in South Croydon with my family and serve as a local Councillor there. I spent much of my youth in Thornton Heath and Crystal Palace visiting friends and family, and had my first job working in a warehouse in South Norwood.

Croydon has always been my home, and that is why I am both humbled and proud to be standing to be Croydon’s first directly-elected Mayor. Croydon is a fantastic place to live and work, but the choices made by the current failing Labour Council have broken our borough with bankruptcy, poor planning, and filthy streets.

It doesn’t need to be that way. I want to restore our pride in Croydon. Croydon is a town with great potential, and brimming with fantastic people. As Mayor, I will listen to our diverse communities and respect the distinct character of our local areas, ensuring that nobody feels held back or taken for granted anymore.

My message to local residents is this: in May 2022, they need to do more than just hope for a better Croydon – they’ve got to vote for one!

The Government could solve the “housing crisis” – provided it doesn’t mind creating another one

2 Dec

Is there a housing crisis? Resorting to hyperbole is a tempting means for politicians and commentators to attract our attention. There is also a widespread notion that while error or falsehood that spread complacency is quite wrong, when it is alarmism and panic that is created, it is entirely virtuous. This week Gillian Keegan, the Health Minister, said it is better to “over-react than under-react” to Omicron. There is no reasonable basis for claiming that the world is going to end due to climate change. Yet without quite giving a date for the apocalypse, we hear much about the “climate emergency”. “One minute to midnight on that doomsday clock”, as our normally upbeat Prime Minister likes to put it. Such messages have meant some young people are suffering depression and resolving not to have children of their own.

So far as housing is concerned, the costs have obviously sharply risen, compared to those faced by previous generations; while other bills – such as for groceries – have gone down in real terms. But a “housing crisis” for an individual would suggest not just that paying a bill is a struggle, but impossible – with the result being someone is thrown out due to eviction or repossession. The Ministry of Justice produces statistics on these miserable outcomes. The Health Foundation has analysed them and found that the “rate of homelessness claims by previous tenure” has generally been falling. Those in social housing are most likely to be evicted – but that has fallen from 24.6 per thousand households in 2009 to 15.1 per thousand in 2019/20. For those in the private rented sector it’s down from 11.4 to 9.2. So far as mortgage repossessions are concerned it’s down from 10.7 per thousand households a decade ago to 3.2.

Those measures suggest that if there is a crisis it is less severe than a decade ago. Not that being a desiccated calculating machine tells the whole story. How many couples have abandoned hopes of a future together, married with children, due to housing costs? So the report this week from the Centre for Social Justice –  “Exposing the hidden housing crisis” – had a powerful title. How many relationships have floundered ostensibly about some other frustration but with the underlying cause being the lack of a decent home to settle in? The Ministry of Justice might not be able to offer statistics for those unfulfilled dreams but there are probably rather a lot.

We often talk about home-ownership becoming unaffordable. But the report is right to add that increased rents are also a challenge for many. Paying the rent to a private landlord used to take up a tenth of income – now it is around a third. Often when incomes are too low to pay the rent, the taxpayer picks up a hefty bill. The report says that it will come to £30.3 billion (including both Housing Benefit and the housing element of Universal Credit) for 2021–22.

The problem comes with the implication in the report that the solution is a higher ratio of social housing – rather than a general increase in the housing supply. Theresa May states in the forward:

“We tightened up the planning system to ensure developers meet their obligations to deliver more affordable homes.”

The report notes, in passing, the Government’s target of 300,000 homes being “needed”. But it adds that “focusing on the gross number of homes delivered does not tell us much about the types of homes being built, and for whom they best cater.”

Of course, what is needed for house prices to fall is a much bigger increase in overall supply. It could be via social housing. Suppose a million new social homes, spread around the country, were miraculously built overnight. The timescale might be a stretch but otherwise it could be done. The public sector owns millions of acres of surplus land. The principal cost of housing is the land rather than the bricks and mortar. The state could give the necessary land away to housing associations, with planning permission, then it would be perfectly viable. The alphabet soup of affordable housing categories – social rent, affordable rent, shared ownership, discounted market sale – might be varied in the mix. But if housing associations had the land for free it would be possible to make the figures add up, while offering to sell or rent below market prices.

It would also follow that if these million new homes flooding onto the market were attractive and of good quality then there would be plenty of takers. That would have implications for the private sector. Rents and house prices would dive. It wouldn’t much matter if the Government sold the land (thus helping to tackle the National Debt) and a million new homes came on the market at full market price from private developers. Either way house prices would soon plunge.

You have probably spotted the catch. Falling house prices would mean those of us who have already bought see our notional wealth starting to tumble. Those who bought recently would find themselves in “negative equity”. A large number of such cases and soon the media would talk about…”a housing crisis.”

As a home owner, I still say that the Government should ease supply and allow prices to fall to the natural level. We could reintroduce mortgage interest tax relief. Those with the highest mortgages would benefit the most – so that would placate recent buyers. Many home-owners also have children growing up fast who would like to buy – without having to impatiently wait to inherit.

I can see that a policy that will lower house prices is something that politicians are nervous about embracing. But declaring a “housing crisis”, while failing to call for a reduction in housing costs is obfuscation. The Government should put up or shut up.