Councils like mine are being hampered as we try to tackle the housing crisis

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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10 Responses to “Councils like mine are being hampered as we try to tackle the housing crisis”

  1. wg

    @Patrick Newman – you do know that it was the last Labour government that offloaded council estates to private enterprises.
    They did so under Fabian orders to separate council houses from the demographic changes that Labour knew they were about to inflict on the UK.

    If you are so proud of your immigration policies, at least own the measures used to deceive the communities that have been torn apart as a result.

  2. Dave Roberts

    I have written on this forum on this subject before but can now do so with much more feeling as I was born and brought up in Tower Hamlets, actually in the old Borough of Stepney as Tower Hamlets didn’t come into existence until 1965 when I was a teenager.
    Those of you who read my posts may remember that I told you that I began my working life as a bricklayer and eventually qualified as a chartered surveyor, a profession I practice to this day.

    John Biggs isn’t the first Mayor of a borough or indeed the first politician to claim that they can’t solve the housing problem because of this that and the other and he won’t be the last for the simple reason that under the present set of circumstances there is no solution and the problem will only get worse. Let us define what we mean by solve. If that represents a situation where there is accommodation within an area for all who want it, within the public sector, then there is no solution and any claim that there is is obviously a lie.

    The crisis, and it most certainly is that, isn’t new. The 1966 film Cathy Come Home which led to the setting up of Shelter highlighted the seriousness of the situation half a century ago. Books like Children of The Abyss and TV series such as The Secret History of Our Streets go back to the 19th century and show an equally drastic situation so the problem isn’t new. What is to be done then? Well, the first thing I do on looking at a building I haven’t seen before is a survey so let’s do that.

    One of the things that Patrick Newman has done above, although in his usual childish and foot stamping manner, is to point out the effect of the Right to Buy brought in by the Tories and kept in place by successive Labour governments. It is no use John Biggs or anyone else moaning on about how it has effected their ability to house people in the present because as soon as the property has been sold for the first time it has passed out of the public realm, unless it is bought back, for ever.

    As has been pointed out here before one of the main drivers of the housing crisis is an increasing population usually of people unable financially to provide for themselves who must of necessity look to the state for housing either in the form of council/housing association or in the form of subsidies from the public purse to the private sector, housing benefit.

    Given the increasing poverty of large sections of the world and the general view, which I have experienced personally in Africa and Asia, that Europe and particularly the UK is a paradise then immigration from outside the EU is likely to continue be it legal or illegal. Given the high levels of English spoken throughout many parts of the third world, people from there are more likely to head to the UK than Norway! On top of that until we leave the EU, or whatever happens, immigration from Easter Europe and possibly beyond if the EU expands will continue. The population of London in particular will continue to grow.

    What then is the solution. It must surely be to restrict the size of the population eligible for housing and that will mean the repeal of the 1977 Housing Act which puts a duty on local authorities to give priority in housing to families defined as homeless. Secondly, all sales of publicly owned accommodation should be stopped in perpetuity with the ownership transferred to trusts. Those measures will hold the fort on the housing lists but how to bring them down.

    I have referred here before to a website that I have found impressive and it is particularly relevant as the writer was a Tower Hamlets councillor for twenty years and also Leader of The Council for four and therefore has some authority and experience. and the article Small is Beautiful which lays out some principals and practical measures for house building on land already council owned. It might be worth John Biggs bringing in Helal Abbas as his Housing Czar as that title seems to be in vogue for everything. I look forward to an intelligent discussion of this subject.

  3. Barry Edwards

    In the 1950s to 1970s Britain built 400,000 new homes a year (1968 was the peak with 460,000 new homes) half of which were council or housing association homes at social rent. Since 1980 there has never been more than 140,000 new homes a year with very few being social housing.

    It makes sense for the private sector to always build less than the demand as that raises the price and building fewer at higher prices increases their profit margin. Only when they realise that the public sector is serious about meeting demand will the private sector build as many as they can sell at a stable price.

  4. Dave Roberts

    Barry Edwards.
    Your first paragraph is a statement of fact your second makes no sense whatsoever. Would you like to comment on my post above where I give some suggestions as to solutions?

  5. Dominique Cournault

    I asked many times why the councils do not use their powers given in 2018 to manage the thousands of empty dwellings with EDMO’s (empty dwelling management order)???? Can anyone respond or is it too embarrassing?

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