Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Part of Redbridge in Slough

Sutton Dwellings by Chris Guy 2008 on Flickr. Licence: CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

What about this housing crisis then? This is a bit long because it's important, I'm angry, and I thought that in order to come up with good questions I'd better do some homework.

In 1980 Margaret Thatcher's government introduced social housing tenants' right to buy their home. Although this gave a leg-up for some tenants, as a national housing policy it failed for the following reasons. After benefiting from a huge discount - currently £102,700 in London - former tenants are free to sell at market rate (and let's face it, who wouldn't). Councils haven't been funded to replace the stock they're selling (85,254 sold but only 880 built between 1998 and 2011, for example), which means that to fulfill their legal obligation to house all their residents they've had to resort to the private rental market.

And - surprise - last year a London Assembly Labour report [PDF format] found that 36% of the homes sold by councils are now being rented back to council tenants supported by housing benefit. And despite the fact that rents are dictated by market rates (which the Council is protesting) the government decided last year to try to rein in costs by hard-capping housing benefit. Oh, and councils interpreted 'make work pay' as no longer allocating council places on the basis of need. That's when we started to hear a lot about food banks.

Before I get to talking about Redbridge, let me just say it's a mad world. We've heard plenty over the past few years about local Londoners being outmanoeuvred in the pursuit of homes. You know the saying, 'safe as houses'? Watch Jacques Peretti's  two-part 2015 BBC documentary 'The Super-Rich and Us' for more on how owners, developers and agents are welcoming wealthy overseas investors to snap up UK homes, which are the kind of long-term investment they calculate will withstand market upheavals and which they then keep unoccupied. In Kensington and Chelsea they call it buy to leave. A recent Greater London Authority-commissioned report [PDF format] estimated that a whopping two thirds of new homes sold in London are bought by cash-rich investors. They call London Russia's second city because of the concentrations of Russian wealth and power here.

Elsewhere the best-known  - but certainly not unusual - example is Southwark's Heygate and later Aylesbury Estates where for the (Labour) council 'regeneration' meant demolition, serving tenants notice, and right-to-buy owners with compulsory purchase orders below market rates, privatising affordable housing while slashing numbers by half, and allowing developers to use poor doors so that wealthy owners wouldn't have to encounter the affordable residents. Will the same happen to Chelsea's handsome Sutton Estate pictured above, under threat of demolition?

What about Redbridge?

East London boroughs are campaigning for independent powers devolved from the mayor, with housing as a main issue. Laura Burnip recently reported in the Ilford Recorder that the wealthy local authority of Westminster has bought 10 "cheap" (ha!) homes in Redbridge over the past 18 months and is moving in tenants from its social housing waiting list. In 2014 after a change in the rules of eligibility Redbridge's waiting list was 7,804 (the lowest number since 2005 - all London boroughs: 348,648, all England: 1.8m).  Redbridge local authority average weekly rent was £102.82 while local Private Registered Provider (PRP) rents were £124.95 and climbing more quickly. That's a huge difference for anybody on a low income. According to a report [PDF format] by Green London Assembly member Darren Johnson, then to be defined as 'affordable' on minimum wage, rent can't be more than £73 a week.

I'll digest the relevant bits from Redbridge full council meetings from after the last local election in June 2014 until November, which is the last set of minutes. Spoiler: it's woeful.

June 2014:
  • Councillor Javed is the new Cabinet Member for Housing.
  • Since 2002 just over 7000 homes have been built of which only 1,400 were affordable.
  • The London Plan's target is currently 760 new homes a year in Redbridge but the Mayor of London is proposing an increase to 1,123. This is short of the estimated 2000 needed.
  • 2000 Redbridge households are in emergency accommodation including B&Bs (this is different from being on the housing list, incidentally).
September 2014:
  • Scrutiny and explanation about why Oakfield is a locally allocated site.
November 2014:
  • There is a new council house building scheme in Redbridge. But because of restrictions on funding it's only nine homes with four in the pipeline and 40 expected - in other words it's a drop in the ocean.
  • The council is expecting to hear very soon about the outcome of a £20m GLA bid which over 10 years will fund private contractors to deliver 3,700 homes in Ilford.
Something else I find quite mad is that according to the current Redbridge Housing Strategy (I'd like to link but Redbridge i is denying all knowledge - try a web search), Redbridge is considering starting a company to deliver the houses. This is how it's done these days - when Southwark council recently announced plans to build 11,000 new council homes by 2043, to get things done it had to set up a "wholly-owned, council controlled ‘vehicle’ to finance future delivery"). In other words, to fund affordable housing in a way which would keep homes affordable in perpetuity even if they were bought under the right-to-buy scheme, government policy would require a council to set up its own company. And while councils are expected to borrow the capital costs from the Treasury's Public Works Loans Board it seems they aren't under any obligation to make them council homes or even affordable homes. Southwark may be rare in retaining the new builds as council homes.

Redbridge is reportedly shipping out tenants to Birmingham and Slough. It's well known that high prices are forcing Londoners out of the capital but what may be less well known is that lack of affordable housing and the inadequate funding regime is also forcing London councils to approach housing associations as far away as Derby and Stoke-on-Trent to request the use of properties for London tenants. When then housing minister Shapps accused Labour councils of politicking about that, he clearly hadn't realised that Conservative councils were pursuing similar avenues. 2012 saw a flurry of news items about councils trying to bribe tenants out of their hair.

You might ask why this matters. I don't hold with the argument that London needs poor people to do poorly-paid jobs. Ultimately some people are to be poor (which I don't recognise as inevitable) then it's a nasty society which denies them a secure, permanent home or forces them out of their city. What is increasingly clear is that when key workers (teachers, nurses, social workers, &c) are finding they can't afford to live a reasonable distance from their workplace, there's a big problem. 'Affordable' isn't affordable round here.

If you mind about this, then how about checking the manifestos (when they're published) of the political parties running candidates in Redbridge. The candidates should be asked questions about housing at the hustings. How will their party support councils to build affordable homes for rental in the borough? Will it ensure covenants on any homes sold under right to buy to keep them affordable in perpetuity, and will it replace the bought homes with new ones for rent? What do the candidates themselves want for housing in Redbridge? Will they be hospitable to incomers, or will they be nimbies? And questions for the council: will it be borrowing money from the Treasury? If so, what are the terms? Does it consider it ethical to allocate housing on the basis of connections with the local area rather than, as previously, need?

Can you think of other questions we should be asking?

Image credit: Sutton Dwellings by Chris Guy 2008 on Flickr. Licence: CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.


  1. A very informative blog post.

  2. just out of interest mr bside21 do you know how many people Redbridge have found homes for in the stated other boroughs i wouldn't know where to start to find the figures

  3. Yes I can think of at least two questions. Why don't they scrap the Right to Buy scheme once and for all? Why don't they multiply by a factor of, say, 10 the Council Tax for property left empty for more than a year?

  4. I have been monitoring the recent housing issues very closely and it is rather upsetting to see the government introduce polices which are not transformative enough to make a significant long-term change to the housing market and property prices. The general public could easily list several corrective policies and actions the government could take but there is no political appetite to address the housing crisis. The government in particular the cabinet are mostly land-owners so there is no incentive for them to see prices go down.

    I am a house owner and while seeing house prices going up directly helps me it won't help my children and the next generation.

  5. jmartin, I couldn't find that information in the Ilford Recorder either - it was a passing reference. I'll try to find out.

    Patsy, agree about Right To Buy. But this morning I read this piece about the fortunes of Carlisle's Raffles Estate from its beginning in the 30s to the present day. It made me pause for thought, because when it became a sink estate, the local government threw a load of money at it without any improvement, then ran out of ideas, demolished it and brought it property developers and private ownership (some not affordable).


    So the question is, under what circumstances do residents have pride in a social housing estate?

    1. When we first came to Barkingside in 1981 most of the area between Fencepiece Road and Tomswood Hill was what was then called a Council Estate ('social housing' came later). Because Redbridge was actually quite a responsible borough the properties there were well maintained, with improvements made when necessary, and most tenants responded to that and kept their gardens in good order. I certainly don't remember the area being any kind of problem.

      Some of the houses had very wide side gardens and if you walk up Fencepiece Road now you will see that most of the people living at the end of the terraces have built another house beside the original one and have therefore made a huge profit, as well as having bought the house at a discount in the first place. I am not against private enterprise but I do object when it is subsidised by the taxes of others who may themselves be far worse off.

  6. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and yes i do agree (in hindsight) that if Mrs T's government had said that a certain percentage of that Right to Buy Money had been ploughed back into building Council homes we might not have the 'crisis' we have now.
    In hindsight dear old John Prescott was right in not believing it correct that families, especially those with small children should be in B&B's. Councils finding that they had no where to house these families were told, seek out the private market, which they did and this led to the Buy to Let.....and we have all seen the ads for those, even on some of the newer estates in Redbridge and elsewhere in London.

    Two years ago the Council pushed up the price of Council Tax on empty properties to begin at 6months vacancy instead of the previous 12 months - there are at least 3 properties i know of that have been empty 10 years!! Look over some of the shops in Barkingside, Gants Hill etc....the homeless charity, Shelter said several years ago, that if ALL empty properties in London were brought back to usage, then it would cut the numbers needing homes by a substantial amount.

    By the way the 'affordable' or key worker homes on the Axon Estate in Ilford were empty and no one was interested in them, mainly because, there was a) no parking and b) it was shared ownership - meaning when the person wanted to move on, they HAD to sell back to the developer, plus anyone in a flat above the 3rd floor and using a lift will be charged 'maintanence' fees. These 'fees' cannot be claimed as part of Housing Benefit, universal credit etc, falling to the tenant to pay - if they need 'affordable homes' it is unlikely they are able to pay this and that's why so many remain empty or are snapped up by Buy to Rent investors - and the maintenance doesn't get paid in the end.

  7. think that future housing crisis's could be avoided if immigration were to be looked at with this in mind i know i sound like a nimby but i do think this country is walking into massive problems not only to do with housing but alot more else...

  8. Hello jmartin, I can't see how the causes of the crisis are to do with immigration - they seem wholly to do with policy, to me. See the point above about about 'buy to leave' in Kensington & Chelsea - you don't have to be resident here to buy. I could have also said that there's plenty of accommodation, it's just unevenly distributed. And we're not building enough, and we all seem to want space & privacy.

  9. Vanessa - really interesting to hear how the keyworker homes didn't fulfill their remit.

  10. with all due respect Mira,i am fed up with the effects of immigration being swept under the carpet if you take away the amount of recent (2000 onwards )immigrants and offspring off of the amount of future homes needed this may show that it does and has and is effecting our services unless that is that you are one of those who believe that it is all down to us "living longer" as the goverment want us to believe.its always the old and disabled that take the blame

  11. With equal respect j martin, I I think immigration is the highest compliment a country can have. I'm a product of it myself. I also think that the enclosure of the world is a great injustice that we should be looking for ways to undo. That said, I'm not at all satisfied with the response of policy makers and planners, for the reasons you mention. So let's avoid this scrap at the bottom between poor people, immigrants, older and disabled people and just get some decent homes built. It seems pretty simple to me.