The local housing market is broken. The Tories don’t have a plan to fix it

Speech to Wandsworth Council, Wednesday March 4, 2015 

The housing market is broken. This council does not have a plan to fix it.

The housing crisis is hurting families and it’s hurting renters.

This council can’t solve the crisis. It puts property developers ahead of the public interest and has turned its back on people who have regular incomes.

Wandsworth is a great place to raise a family. But is has become a tough place to raise a family.

* Rent on the average 4-bed house went up 32% in the last two years.

* The Sunday Times reports that in Wandsworth the difference in price between a 3-bed home and a 4-bed home is £419,000 – the highest gap in the country.

*  Childcare costs more than £10,000 per year per child.

I don’t know a single local family who thinks they will get to live in the new Nine Elms flats. Just three of the first 2,400 flats to be built on the Battersea Power Station site are affordable, family-sized homes 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.

Continue reading

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

Screen shot 2012-01-18 at 21.54.35

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

The Wall in the Head: Why money alone can’t help our worst estates

Speech to Wandsworth council, May 15, 2013

This council created modern Latchmere, the ward I represent, and we got it wrong. We built streets in the sky where neighbours fear to stop and talk. Designed estates with few shops and no jobs – in some cases literally with walls around them.

We had a tenancy policy that – coupled with a misguided Right To Buy scheme – has concentrated the borough’s most troubled families in the same places.

As I told this chamber in my maiden speech, I joined the council to change Latchmere, not keep it the same.

Since I made that speech in 2010, on the Winstanley and York Road Estates, six young men have been shot and one stabbed to death.

Continue reading

Read all about it: Wandsworth’s housing crisis hits the newspapers

My recent blog post Analysis: ‘Wandsworth fixes rents by elections not economics’ led to quite a lot of interest from the press. Not all of the coverage was balanced, but it has helped to draw attention to an important issue:

Private Eye Article

Private Eye, March 22 Continue reading

Analysis: ‘Wandsworth fixes rents by elections not economics’

New research shows Wandsworth sets rent increases at less than half the government guideline in the year before local elections and more than double the guideline in the first year after local elections.

This shocking finding came from analysis I commissioned of rent data from the past 20 years – and follows the council’s decision to increase rents by 2.7% in 2013/14. Wandsworth council already charges the highest rents in Britain and by the end of this year benefit cuts will seriously affect many families in social housing.

Data reveals that year before an election Wandsworth charges 44% of the government’s suggested guideline rent rise; but the year after each election rents leap by 246% of the guideline.

The figures can be revealed after a political row in the most recent Town Hall Housing Committee. At the January 23 meeting, Labour councillor Tony Belton produced a list of rent increases for the past 20 years and stated that rents were clearly set to match political priorities, not financial ones. Continue reading

The truth about housing: These cuts are unfair – but costs have got out of control

Speech on Government Welfare Reforms to Wandsworth Council, 5 December 2012

Thank you Mr Mayor, this motion relates to a series of government measures that affect people who need support to afford to live in Wandsworth.

So the debate is about the sort of place we want to live.

We could start with the views of two residents – neither one a known Socialist: the Director of Housing and the Director of Finance.

In paper 12-689 they conclude these measures will affect thousands of residents and will lead to an increase in arrears, evictions and homelessness, and the reforms will cost the council more than £7m a year in unpaid rent.

So it’s an important debate – and I hope a reasoned one. Residents deserve more than ‘no cuts at all’ versus ‘something must be done’.

So while I think this policy is badly intentioned and will have awful consequences, I’m happy to begin with three straight statements:

Housing Benefit has got out of control; I agree with the principle of a benefit cap; and I think there is too much fraud in the current system.

To take these in turn:

1. Housing Benefit is out of control

It is sinful that £20bn a year is paid to landlords, money that could be much better spent building homes.

Remember that Housing Benefit itself was a short-term sticking plaster for lack of affordable home-building under governments of both parties.

So now we have ripped off that sticking plaster. More than 500 3- and 4-bedroom houses are left exposed. The landlords of these properties, not being charities, will over time most likely return them to market rents or sell up. This will force people from our community, and crucially dozens of family-sized properties will be taken out of the affordable stock forever.

So what steps has the council taken to negotiate with these landlords? Are we reaching out to residents, or simply waiting for them to come to us?

2. The benefits cap

I don’t think one family should consistently live a better life on benefits than the neighbouring family that works every hour God sends.

But any cap set nationally needs a serious London weighting.

A search in Battersea for 2-bed flats under the new Housing Benefit cap of £290 a week today turned up no properties.

The Universal Credit cap of £500 a week for a family including housing costs is reasonable in Plymouth, but not Putney.

The most obvious impact of caps at these levels are to exclude low-income families from certain parts of London. Why not set the caps at Wandsworth averages?

3. There is too much fraud in the system

There is, I’m co-operating with the Housing dept on a case at present.

But this paper contained no anti-fraud measures at all. This is a policy that targets legitimately claimed benefits – in the depths of the recession.

These reforms will end the situation where the children who live in a Housing Association home in my road can grow up chatting to the doctor and the accountants who live in the neighbouring properties.

We want to make social housing truly something people aspire to, not qualify for, but these reforms will only intensify poverty on our estates.

Government should move housing subsidy from landlords towards bricks and mortar and we should focus relentlessly on housing delivery and training and job opportunities for local people. A housing stimulus is a good way out of recession, and a good job is the only way out of poverty.

However you vote tonight, I would encourage all members to investigate these issues in their own wards. There are people out there who will need your support and protection. Thank you.