Tackling our dysfunctional housing market requires a herculean effort at national and local levels, writes Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs.
Every week at my advice surgery I see the human cost of the housing crisis with overcrowded families in unsuitable accommodation.
We use the term housing crisis and it really is a crisis. The government holds back what we can do as a local authority for residents who are crying out for faster progress.
Our dysfunctional housing market does not protect our most vulnerable residents, who face the high housing costs of an inner London borough. With a population that’s growing fast, adding 15 new residents a day in Tower Hamlets, keeping up with demand is an ongoing challenge.
Recent statistics by Inside Housing show 70% of people do not think the government is doing enough on housing. The government’s failure to build has in part contributed to the feeling that politicians don’t make a difference. Meanwhile Westminster is consumed by Brexit and a leadership election.
With a housing waiting list in our borough of around 18,000 people, change will not happen overnight. Across London council home-building has been boosted to the highest level in 34 years and we are seeing the difference a Labour Mayor in City Hall can make. Sadiq Khan has moved us on from the legacy Boris Johnson left – a pipeline of zero social homes to deliver for Londoners – towards a target that begins to meet needs.
But there is a lot of catching up to do. With partnership between councils, housing associations, City Hall and more thoughtful developers we are beginning to make progress. In recent years we have been among the top performing places in the country for affordable homes by working with developers and social landlords.
Much of the delivery is locally driven. In Tower Hamlets, have redefined previously unaffordable ‘affordable’ rents, got families out of bed and breakfast accommodation and made progress towards 2,000 new council homes,
When I was elected as the local Mayor I set up an affordability commission that redefined council rents so they are closer to genuine social rent levels, saving residents up to £6,000 a year. The Labour Party has said it will redefine affordability so it is linked to local income, and tackle the viability assessment rules to give councils a stronger hand than we currently have.
I have committed to delivering 2,000 council homes and we are well on the way to this. It’s not an easy task but through a mixture of building homes, buying back ex-local authority or previously stock transferred homes we are increasing our housing supply.
Despite this progress here in Tower Hamlets, since 2000 Land Registry statistics show 2,931 social housing units have been sold on again by former tenants who exercised right to buy. Nationally Labour has said it would stop the sell-off of 50,000 social rented homes a year by suspending the right to buy.
We also have a growing private rented sector which now accounts for 42% of all homes in the borough. We have taken action to drive up standards and protect tenants and where we can we have introduced landlord licensing – but again government rules limit our powers.
The Labour manifesto pledged to make new three-year tenancies the norm, with an inflation cap on rent rises. Given the particular pressures in London, it also promised to look at giving the Mayor of London additional powers – something I support.
In the East End we are on the frontline of the housing crisis. We need a government that really puts housing first and lets us do more.
In the meantime I’ll still have an advice surgery full of people who need change to come much sooner than that.
John Biggs is Mayor of Tower Hamlets.
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