Wandsworth’s Housing Offer: A homeless crisis, unfair rents & favours for developers

 

Speech to Wandsworth Council, 28 January 2015

This paper covers council rents, money to tackle the homelessness crisis and elements of councillor Govindia’s new housing strategy. There are positive and negative sides to each.

On council rents, the average increase this year will be 2.2%. This is fair – but in reality almost no one will actually pay it.

Sometimes you just have to look at a policy and apply a common sense check. 10,000 of our tenants will get less than £1 a week rent rise but 3,500 households on historically lower rents will get more than £8 a week rent rise, with almost nothing in between.

1,300 of the families facing an extra £400 in rent next year receive no housing benefit at all. We know most of these will be older people: some too proud to claim, others working for minimum wage.

In terms of the number of people affected and financial impact this is comparable to the Bedroom Tax. The council is taking an unnecessary risk.

Wandsworth has yet to get to grips with its homelessness crisis. It should be praised for committing to spend £20m on temporary accommodation. It’s about time.

Unfortunately it’s too little and it’s too late.

The new properties bought with the £20m will almost all be outside Wandsworth.

I wrote to the council about a Tooting mother who became homeless with her three children after a difficult family situation. She works and studies locally but the council made a final offer that she should move to a private rented home in West Bromwich, 100 miles from her friends and her children’s school.

When she said the property was unsuitable, the council responded with an eviction notice. This behaviour damages the reputation of the council.

Wandsworth has been condemned by Sandwell Council’s leader for treating people “like cattle” and moving them around the country to cut costs.

The council’s Housing Revenue Account reserves, by the way, remain above £250m.

Last week’s Housing Committee discussed a new housing strategy from the Tory leader.

I hope both parties can now agree: “The Council’s current housing policies are not delivering”

“Low to middle income households are being priced out of the Borough”

We can agree: “Aspirations to own are not being met”

This has a “polarising effect” between rich and poor.

The leader makes all of these honest statements in his Wandsworth Housing Offer strategy paper.

I think the leader’s strategy paper is welcome. It is heartfelt and bold. It attempts to sketch out a vision for the future. There are many welcome elements. 5,000 homes over the next decade for local people; hundreds of new homes on council land; improved estates; more low-cost housing delivered by developers; a Wandsworth Housing Company; longer, stable renting contracts. There are a surprising number of Labour ideas in the paper: if we were not consulted, it appears we were listened to.

There are of course areas of disagreement. We object to the lack of commitment to social housing. There is an impression that vulnerable residents would be pushed into private renting or out of the borough. There is also a general lack of detail – who is ‘local’ or ‘working’ and what does ‘affordable’ or ‘low-cost’ mean in practice?

The main problem is that the strategy is too little, too late. We’ve been asleep at the wheel for too long. Three facts that sum up Wandsworth’s record:

  • Just three of the first 2,400 flats to be built on the Battersea Power Station site are affordable, family-sized homes.
  • Wandsworth sold off 128 council homes last year and built just 2 new ones.
  • Nearly 1,000 homeless local families will spend tonight in council temporary accommodation.

This is the reality, today.

People will judge the council on results, not good intentions.

Right To Buy gone wrong: Council gets £8m for £26m of property

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Right To Buy is a good policy when it helps council tenants become home-owners and a new house is built from profit. But that’s not happening.

Wandsworth sold 128 council homes last year and built 2 new ones.

£26.2m of property was sold for £14.7m (only £8.3m of which is available to build new homes).

The Sunday Times story “Sell us your council flat and we’ll split the profit” suggests the Right To Buy is being abused in London. “[Property developer] said councils are massively undervaluing properties, which he can buy from tenants and resell for much higher prices.”

There is certainly cause for concern in Wandsworth. Right To Buy sales more than doubled from the previous year. It is hard to believe all 128 families bought with no middle-men involved.

Even if they receive the maximum £100,000 discount, tenants still need extraordinary wealth to buy their council homes. Take this 3-bed Surrey Lane Estate council flat which is on the market for £495,000. To exercise their Right To Buy, a tenant would need a £40k deposit plus £2,000 mortgage payment each month for 25 years!

I asked the council what the average income of Right To Buy tenants was and how many buy in cash or with the help of property developers.

The council replied that it does not collect data on the income of Right To Buy purchasers. It makes no checks on whether buyers use cash or have a mortgage.

Millions of pounds of housing assets are being lost to the council each year without adequate safeguards that the right people are benefiting from Right To Buy.

Why was the Winstanley Estate built?

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I was excited to find this 1938 ‘Britain from Above‘ photograph – the first time I’ve seen the houses that Winstanley Estate replaced.

This is how the same Winstanley area looks today – not one building remains from 1938.

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Wandsworth council recently announced a regeneration plan that will demolish much of the estate over the next decade – including 700 homes built in the 1960s and 1970s.

When the above aerial photograph was taken in 1938, the Winstanley area was already earmarked for slum clearance. Then wartime bombing shattered thousands of Battersea homes. Continue reading

Winstanley regeneration is about building communities, not just homes

Wendy Speck on the Kambala Estate

Latchmere Labour councillor Wendy Speck

Guest post by councillor Wendy Speck

Regeneration to me is about building homes and a good, safe community people are proud to live in.

It is not that long since the riots in Clapham Junction, when the whole community was unsettled and we, as local councillors have worked hard in Latchmere and in the local community to see how we can make things better for our local residents.

We have worked to keep our local library and community hall open (which meant being active on the local Friends of York Gardens Library Committee) and the planning group for the Big Local Lottery funding, which covers some of the area, taking part in meetings and activities of many local groups and so on, so they were encouraged to see their area prosper.

Continue reading

Winstanley Estate regeneration: 10 problems – and how we can make it a success

(Speech to Wandsworth council, December 2013 – starts at 31.30mins)

I think this crucial regeneration project has begun well, thanks to hard work by staff and consultants, co-operation between political parties and, crucially, engagement from local people. Who have, so far, backed the most bold option put in front of them.

It is a mighty challenge now for the council to sell the benefits of potentially demolishing 700 homes and replacing them with around 2,000 new homes – perhaps a billion pounds of new housing – on that estate.

Continue reading

Wrong, harmful and costly: Wandsworth’s reckless housing cuts

(Speech from Oct 16, 2013 – starts at 12 mins in the above video)

I think housing is the biggest challenge that faces this council.

It’s an issue that affects every one of us.

Young renters moving through a series of expensive, short-term flats. Parents struggling to fund their children – from the ‘Bank of Mom & Dad’. The homeless families with their lives in ruins.

Local house prices are now 13 times local salaries. Private rents up 14pc in a year. Wandsworth is living through a housing crisis.

As councillor Thomas skilfully outlined, a series of welfare reforms are hitting our poorest residents. And this impact is about to get worse.

Housing is important.

That’s why Wandsworth’s Housing department is important.

It does some fantastic work. Tenant satisfaction levels are extraordinary, officers have created hundreds of Hidden Homes, the graffiti removal service is excellent there are hugely popular open days to encourage home ownership and affordable housing.

The £100m regeneration of our most deprived estates is possible thanks to the long-term strength of the rents account – the Housing Revenue account – which has a £1.8bn projected surplus.

And it can’t be said often enough in this debate – housing is funded by those people who live in council housing. There is a legal ring-fence around the money collected in rent – more than £100m a year.

Unlike other debates about  cuts to services, this is not about the money we receive from government and this is not about the council tax we collect from residents.

The first thing to say about these proposals for 45 job cuts is that they were pushed through to evade scrutiny. The plans were fully formed at the time of the last housing committee but were hidden from councillors. This is not fair dealing.

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Wandsworth’s in a housing crisis – and the council just made it worse

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I have called a public meeting in the Town Hall tomorrow night (Tuesday, 6.30pm in Room 122) to discuss the housing crisis in Wandsworth. I hope you can come.

Private rents are up 14pc in a year, the average income of a homebuyer is now more than £100,000 and there are 6,000 people waiting for council flats.

Looking to buy? This parking space in Battersea costs £70,000, this garage in Tooting costs £315,000 and this former council flat in Latchmere costs £550,000!

Homelessness is on the rise and the Bedroom Tax is hurting hundreds of local families – you can read how it has affected one mother on the Shaftesbury Estate here.

The council should be working round the clock to help people move up the housing ladder. Instead they have decided to cut 45 roles from the housing department.

These job losses are not necessary. Wandsworth’s housing finances are in excellent shape and its officers widely respected.

Housing services are not paid for from Council Tax – they are paid for by people who live in council housing. Wandsworth charges the highest council rents in the country so its housing department is very well off. These cuts aim to save money from a rents account that has a predicted £1,800m surplus!

Wandsworth has a dreadful record on homeless families left in unsuitable B&B accommodation, yet it is proposed to reduce the size of the relevant team and add to its duties. Continue reading