02 May 2012

Andy Slaughter MP: Hammersmith and Fulham shows where Tory housing policy is going next

This sharp analysis by Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith, of where Tory housing policy is going has just been posted on the excellent Red Brick website.

The borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has become the laboratory for national Government housing policy.  Where H&F goes first, the Government will follow.  And the policy at present is to deliver no extra social rented housing despite the borough’s housing needs. 

Housing Benefit costs in London are so high because there is a shortage of affordable housing, and in particular social rented housing.  Under Gordon Brown the Labour Government began to build new social homes, but this has now almost entirely stopped.  The explanation, at least for the cuts in Social Housing Grant, is austerity economics, although other projects to stimulate the construction industry are going ahead.

But this is not the true picture.  Tory policy is actually to eradicate social rented housing, or confine it to perhaps 10% of current tenants, those with physical or mental health conditions requiring supported housing.  Just as the blueprint for current policy (as enacted in the Localism Act) can be read in the 2008 publication, Principles Of Social Housing Reform, so the practice in  Hammersmith & Fulham (‘Cameron’s favourite council’ and the ‘apple’ of Eric Pickle’s eye) shows how council and housing association homes can be gradually extinguished nationwide.

Pickles and Shapps were both briefed on the 2008 discussions and Shapps attended the seminar which drew up the key elements of H&F policy and discussed social rented housing in disparaging terms.

Here are the four main techniques currently being used to socially and politically change the population of the borough.

1.     No Planning Consents For Social Housing
At least 13,000 new homes will be given planning consent in Hammersmith & Fulham this year on current plans.  Not one will be an additional social home for rent.  This is despite Boris Johnson’s London Plan requiring 25% social rented homes in any such new development, a waiting list of 8,000 families many of whom live in very overcrowded or unfit dwellings and have waited five years or more for re-housing, and only 6% of private accommodation likely to affordable to HB claimants under new benefit regulations. H&F is one of the councils moving residents to Derby and Nottingham.

2.     Demolition
The first major demolition scheme is of 761 good-quality, popular, recently-refurbished houses and flats in West Kensington

After much lobbying the Council did agree to ‘replace’ the demolished flats somewhere in the development area (which will include 7,500 new flats).  Whether residents, many of whom are freeholders or leaseholders, elderly people or temporary tenants will take up this offer is doubtful, given the site will be developed over 20 years.

The development is mired in controversy, from the £105 million windfall the Council will get for delivering vacant possession, the dubious nature of the developer and lack of due diligence, or the refusal to take residents’ views into account.  They voted 3:1 against the scheme in last month’s consultation on a 70% turnout but the Council is pressing on.

3.     Selling council properties
300 council homes are currently being sold by auction to raise in excess of £100 million.  These appear to be selling undervalue, and can only be sold to developers rather than prospective residents under Government rules.  One featured in the BBC programme Under the Hammer.
The first call for the proceeds of sale is likely to be the purchase of leasehold and freehold interests in West Kensington so vacant possession can be delivered to the developer, despite earlier claims that they would be reinvested in housing.

4.     New tenancies
The Council’s new tenancy strategy, which we have been leaked in draft but will not be published until after the Mayoral Election, takes advantage of the Localism Act, the housing sections of which mirror Principles of Social Housing Reform.  
  • Short term (2-5 year) tenancies with no right of succession,
  •  Up to 80% market rents (an increase typically of 200-300%)
  • Discharge of housing duties permanently into the private sector, almost exclusively outside the borough
  • Allocation of Council accommodation no longer on the basis of need.

The real housing argument is about building homes for social rent for households on low incomes.  The Tories clearly do not want to build any.  The argument about Housing Benefit costs versus displacing thousands or families, and the economic and social costs that will follow, is a false choice.

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