Charles Wright: the Haringey HDV and me

by Charles Wright

Charles Wright is a Labour councillor for Woodside ward in Haringey and chairs the council’s overview and scrutiny committee. He will not be defending his seat in May having been de-selected in favour of a Momentum-backed anti-HDV candidate in November. You can follow Charles on Twitter

As an erstwhile decision-maker in Haringey, albeit a councillor on the back benches not in the leader’s cabinet, I want to say a few things about the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV).

I don’t think anyone believes the HDV is the perfect solution to the housing crisis, in Haringey or anywhere else, which is why it hasn’t been easy, in an increasingly binary debate, to argue the case. But I will try.

First off, if there were easy ways to build thousands of council homes we would be doing it. But there are very few options currently available to councils, as Anthony Breach from the Centre for Cities succinctly sets out.

Just 1,840 council homes were built in the whole of England last year. London borough councils sold 3,500 more social rent homes under Right to Buy in the last two years than they built.

The Smith Institute’s conclusion is correct: “Without additional HRA borrowing and a significant increase in social housing grant, the level of new social rented housing delivered directly by councils is unlikely to exceed current levels.”

Councils must also try to meet wider housing need, both in their local plans and under the Mayor’s draft London Plan, which sets Haringey a target of nearly 2,000 new homes a year, as well looking to promote growth, improve our area and address a future with zero government grant.

Squeezing affordable homes out of private development via “planning gain” is limited, while direct development quickly runs up against borrowing caps and lack of funding. Since 2010 the Tories, and the Lib Dems in coalition with them, have been systematically destroying the social rented sector. Hence the growth in housing companies, whether wholly-owned by councils or, like the HDV, in partnership with others, looking to use council land to get a better deal.

Subsidising affordable homes through private sale or rent is, of course, subject to the market like any property development, private or public – a close reading of any London council development plans will reveal a “subject to viability” clause.

But a relatively long-term overarching 50:50 vehicle like the HDV, bringing in private investment, allows for shared risk, cross-funding, and, most significantly, capacity to build at scale.

Development is happening in Haringey anyway. We can shout about it from the stands, or we can get on the pitch and take part. The provision of 6,400 new homes with 40 % of them affordable, all social rent homes replaced, investment in jobs and training and improving Wood Green town centre are not outcomes to be dismissed lightly. That’s why I gave qualified support to the HDV.

It wasn’t an easy decision, particularly in a febrile atmosphere where whether you were “for” or “against” the HDV crowded out any nuance. As a proposal inaccurately caricatured as “a plan to hand over vast chunks of the borough to a predatory private developer”, I get its unpopularity with some. But the reality for me was that the proposal included sufficient safeguards to address genuine concerns.

In particular, the HDV proposals were incremental, dependent on separate council decisions site by site. The recommendation to proceed explicitly stated that it was not a decision to put any estates into the vehicle at this stage, so there was time and space to engage with residents and do further work. City Hall, in my view, has an important role to play, including via resident ballots and requiring no net loss of social housing policies, in ensuring the right kind of regeneration.

Where estate renewal was to go ahead, after statutory consultation, planning permission and final decisions by the council, the scheme included an unqualified right of return for all tenants who chose to do so, or a direct move to a better home if that was what they preferred. And significant development would be on sites with no current social housing, so 40% affordable (at least) on those sites would all be additional.

The timescales and the incremental nature of the HDV would also accommodate policy shifts or a change of government, while if the council lost its appetite for the scheme it could decline to put further sites in.

Nor is the HDV putting “all our eggs in one basket”. Infill, development agreements, such as Love Lane where tenants supported estate redevelopment, working with housing associations and with City Hall, are all happening as well. That won’t stop.

None of this will satisfy those objecting in principle to working with the private sector, and I accept the scheme presented challenges, most pertinently set out by Steve Hilditch on the excellent Red Brick blog hereBut I don’t think my Labour colleagues supporting the plan were motivated by anything other than wanting to address the housing crisis and tackle some pretty intractable problems in our borough.

In my view, and in current circumstances, the HDV is an option which a progressive but also pragmatic and real world Labour council should not dismiss. Maybe there should be an impartially-organised ballot of Northumberland Park residents, putting out all the options to see what the people think?

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