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.

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