Renters don’t get a fair deal in Wandsworth

Speech to Wandsworth Council, December 9, 2015

Wandsworth council is not working hard enough to get a fair deal for renters.

It doesn’t seem to understand renters’ lives. And it is not willing to inspect, to investigate, to level the playing field for renters.

This was shown most recently in the Investing Solutions scandal.

This is the Wandsworth-based letting agency that took £5.5million in housing benefit from a charity which housed the homeless. £2.1m of that was paid by Wandsworth council. Crisis, the housing charity, described the arrangement as “a new low”.

Several of their properties – used to house vulnerable people – were unsuitable, due to lack of heating and hot water, rats and damp.  The BBC reports the company earned £11,568 profit per year from one property alone. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

It’s time to get serious about Wandsworth’s homeless crisis

Speech to Wandsworth Council

Wandsworth faces a growing homelessness crisis. Last year 613 homeless households were in council temporary accommodation, that had risen to 791 at the start of this year and is predicted to reach 916 by the end of the year.

Local rents went up an average of 14 per cent last year. With pay freezes and housing benefit cuts, many local families can’t keep up.

All it takes is an illness or relationship break-up for families to get trapped in a downward spiral of debt. For too many local people this ends with homelessness.

The main cause of the crisis is eviction by private landlords. This led to 13pc of homeless cases in 2010 but had risen to 53pc by last year.

The homelessness crisis hits families hardest. In 2010, only five homelessness families qualified for four-bed homes, last year it was 68 families. This week’s Wandsworth Guardian has a report on local homeless families who will be moved outside the borough.

More and more homeless families have to be housed in temporary accommodation, in particular dingy Bed & Breakfasts.

I’ve seen how homelessness affects children in Putney, Battersea and Tooting. School runs that take two hours. Fights within families sharing one cramped room. The symptoms of depression. 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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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

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.

“Latchmere’s got a wave machine!”: Why free swimming matters

My first speech to Wandsworth Council, July 2010

I am delighted to be speaking after councillor Boswell, the grooviest member of the Labour group.

She recently drew my attention to the Maccabees’ 2006 single ‘Latchmere’, a pop song about Latchmere Leisure Centre. With free swimming for children in Wandsworth under threat it seems fitting to quote from it.

There’s the joyful exclamation:
“Latchmere’s got a wave machine!”

But the rather sad recurring refrain:
“Stay in your lanes, Just stay in your lanes

And the touching
“I came out of the changing rooms
Absolutely nothing had changed
So I stayed in my lane

And that’s what I’d briefly like to talk about: yes, the joy of swimming – and, of course, every child should be encouraged to take it up – but also the character of Latchmere and the feeling that people have to ‘stay in their lane’.

It is customary in a maiden speech to lavish praise on the area that you represent. I’d like to take the opposite course.

Latchmere has issues. Chronic housing problems, more children growing up with one parent than with two, at least 10 per cent unemployment – far greater economic inactivity.

I realise it puts me in a different category to many of the members present, but I joined this council to change the area I represent, not keep it as it is.

Some places were made by aristocrats, some places – such as Bourneville in Birmingham, where I grew up – were made by businesses. As much as anywhere, Latchmere was made by the local authority, and I think we have a special responsibility towards the area.

So I do ask for special treatment for Latchmere, but I don’t want us to lower the bar for people in Latchmere, I want to raise it. We must generate confidence in the future; progress and aspiration. Children on the Kambala Estate need to recognise that they live in the greatest city in the world and that they can be anything they want to be if they work hard enough and follow the rules.

We should improve the built environment of Latchmere. A friend drove onto one of our large estates by accident and simply couldn’t find a way out – “Were they designed to keep people in?” she asked.

And it’s more often the wall in people’s minds, not the wall around the estate that keeps them back. It was actually on the Doddington Estate – in Queenstown – that I met a teenager who told me he’d never been in Battersea Park as it wasn’t the sort of place for him. Stay in your lanes. That’s probably also just as true of people on Prince of Wales Drive visiting the Doddington Estate.

I’m keen to work with anyone who wants to help improve matters.

I have spent a great deal of time splashing around with the new councillors and enjoy their company. I think it is an impressive intake of talent, for both parties, and we seem to share a genuine commitment to good governance for all of the borough.

We need to recognise that policies – particularly the decision to do nothing – affect people differently depending on which side of the Road they live. Sometimes, to treat people fairly we must treat them differently.

Cuts to housing capital spend won’t affect the people of Thamesfield, but it will affect Julie Wilkes, seven stories up in Clarke Lawrence Court, whose rotten windows each winter leak condensation into pools on the floor.

A reduction in bus frequency will inconvenience residents in Bedford, but would be a real problem to Zeeshan Shahid, for whom the G1 is “a lifeline”.

And to be honest a cut in swimming subsidy won’t affect me down in Balham. I don’t like swimming. But Stella on the Battersea Fields Estate found it a great way of getting her two children out of the cramped Berry House flat.

She texted me yesterday in shock that each child will have to pay £2.75 a time from the end of July. That’s a coffee and a cookie at Clapham Junction for many residents, but to Stella it’s a good whack of her weekly income.

I ask you to back the amendment, to keep swimming free for young people in Wandsworth.

VIDEO: The great Nine Elms swindle – How Wandsworth gave up 4,000 affordable homes

There is a housing crisis in Wandsworth. This affects young people looking for a place to rent, families who need an extra bedroom and anyone who hopes to buy a home in the borough (as I said in this speech to Wandsworth council last October).

The answer is to increase the supply of affordable homes – for sale and for rent. So why is Wandsworth council deliberately throwing away the chance of 4,000 new affordable homes for local people?

Continue reading

VIDEO: Wandsworth’s housing crisis – We’re all in this together

(Begins at 11mins 50secs in the video – full text below)

I would like to sketch out some of the personal effects of the housing crisis in Wandsworth today.

I hope to emphasise that whether you own a home, are in social housing or rent privately, we are all in this together – whatever our situation we can all feel anxious about the roof over our head. Continue reading