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.

And councillors from both parties were treated equally, with contempt.

One member of the Housing committee was unaware of the plans until I told her, this week.

Residents’ representatives have not been consulted. Staff say proper consultation has not taken place.

That is why councillor Belton and I held a public housing meeting yesterday and have requisitioned a special Housing Committee for November 4th.

Although it is increasingly difficult to see the point of housing committee. Our decisions are overridden by later deals with developers, the back room chats with lobbyists and small groups behind closed doors deciding on staff cuts.

But the process, which stinks, is not really the main problem here.

These cuts are not necessary. They are not good value for money. They have no strategic basis. Worst of all they will damage the services used by our most vulnerable residents.

Staff who deal every day with the rising tide of homelessness – cut.

Our front-line Bedroom Tax specialists – gone.

Housing trainees – scrapped.

To slice £370k from the hard-pressed general fund, the proposal is to hack £1.5m from the healthy rents account.

We all back budget reductions that don’t harm services. Sensible. That’s what most of us do every day in our jobs; there’s nothing useful about inefficiency.

But this is mad. Imagine if an independent Housing Association had the financial muscle of Wandsworth. It would be planning how to support tenants and develop new homes – not issuing redundancy slips in time for Christmas.

These dangerous cuts have tried to avoid scrutiny, but they will be watched closely.

Staff and their families will be watching. Watching to see if their jobs are used to pay for the traditional pre-election rent cuts.

Employment specialists will be watching. See if the jobs consultation is fair.

Accountants and lawyers will be watching. As some council’s seem to think the answer to their problems is a massive transfer of tenants’ rent money to fund their other activities.

The housing department exists to provide housing services, it is not a piggy bank for the council.

The housing department’s finances are sound, its services are crucial and its staff widely respected.

These plans are wrong, harmful and costly – they should be rejected.

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