A light, airy, brand new terraced house in Stonebridge with three floors and four bedrooms. Two of its tenants, a grandmother and her daughter-in-law, entertain the Mayor of London, his deputy for housing and three Brent politicians. “We are very, very happy,” the grandmother says. “We have a proper sitting room, proper kitchen, two bathrooms, three toilets. Everybody happy.”
A joyful ending, then, to one strand of the story of how City Hall plays its part in getting more of what Sadiq Khan calls “genuinely affordable” homes built in the capital. The pleasure of the family benefitting from it was very evident, and the more stirring the more you thought about how their lives have been improved.
Before Brent Council allocated them their new home in Milton Avenue the six of them, spanning three generations and including two small children, had privately rented a two-bedroom flat, which the four older members of the household had lived in for 14 years. The Mayor accepted a cup of coffee and a biscuit from his hosts. “I wanted to check that the kettle works,” he quipped. “This is my inspection as the Mayor.”
Khan places his contribution to London’s council house building revival in the top rank of his achievements. The visit to the house, one of 22 four-bedroom homes in Brent’s 73-dwelling Hillside and Milton Avenue development, was the photo-op centrepiece of a visit during which Khan told the assembled media he had “smashed” his target for getting new London council housing started under his Building Council Homes for Londoners programme a year ahead of schedule. The figure of 23,000 starts has been released, which surpasses his self-set goal of 20,000 starts by 2024.
That progress is, of course, not all down to the Mayor and the Greater London Authority. In the case of the Stonebridge scheme, Brent provided the (previously derelict) site, contracted the builder – Higgins, whose operation director Dominic Higgins was among those present – and stumped up most of the money.
It cost around £450,000 to build each of the four-bed homes and the average per unit across the development as a whole, which also includes 16 one-bed, 25 two-bed and 10 three-bed flats, is £325,000. The Mayor’s standard, sometimes flexible, contribution to new council housing projects is £100,000 per unit. And those funds are only at his disposal in the first place because they are given to City Hall by the national government.
How big a success is Khan’s council housing policy? Conservative AM Andrew Boff, a stern critic of the Mayor’s housing record, has accused him of “marking his own homework” – in other words of boasting about hitting a target he had set for himself.
Boff argues that the true test of Khan’s approach will be whether 116,000 starts of all types of “affordable” housing part-funded by the Mayor, including those built by housing associations, had been achieved by the end of March (the end of the 2022/23 financial year). Word from City Hall has suggested the number could fall short. The figure is due to be released on 15 May. If it proves to have been less than 116,000, a political punch-up will ensue about who or what was to blame.
Khan’s choices about his role in the distribution of the government’s cash have been a distinctive expression of his values and priorities as a Labour Mayor.
His first affordable homes programme has seen City Hall receive £4.8 billion of government money, supplied in two lumps – an initial £3.15 billion in 2016 followed by a further £1.67 billion in spring 2018.
The strings attached to the deal meant that at first most of the homes the Mayor helped fund were the low cost home ownership products London Shared Ownership and London Living Rent. These are aimed at households in the middle-income range who are unlikely to either ever qualify for a Social Rent or the slightly more expensive London Affordable Rent home, or be able to afford to buy on London’s stratospheric open market.
Those “intermediate” affordable homes are largely built by housing associations, although it is thought about one quarter of the council-built homes part-funded by the Mayor will have fallen into that category, a choice the Mayor’s prospectus allows councils to exercise.
However, subsequent arrangements with the government, and specifically the Mayor’s £4 billion second affordable homes programme, running from 2021 to 2016, have seen a shift in the balance towards homes for rent. That means proportionately less money going towards intermediate affordable homes. But Khan and Copley believe that with around 166,000 Londoners living in temporary accommodation arranged by their local authorities, homes for rent at Social Rent levels or close to them should be their top priority.
Khan, as he famously often mentions, grew up in a council house in Wandsworth and is a steadfast champion of the tenure. He was at pains to impress on the queue of journalists lined up to interview him that he thinks 23,000 council homes begun, with “many” – understood by On London to be something over 6,000 – also completed from a strand of his first affordable funding that began when opened for bidding for the first 10,000 in July 2018 and has therefore had to weather the pandemic, labour shortages, higher sustainability and safety standards and soaring inflation, is not at all bad.
Brent has been allotted £7.3 million for Hillside and Milton Avenue. Council leader Muhammed Butt and Promise Knight, the council’s cabinet lead on housing and also a councillor for the Stonebridge ward, had their own discussion about priorities. In their case it related to the balance between family-sized homes and smaller ones. The resulting 32 dwellings with three or four bedrooms reflects a recognition of local need. They could instead have gone for a higher number of units but fewer larger ones.
City Hall says 4,689 new council homes were started in London in 2020/21 and that this was the largest number since the 1979 – the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister for the first time. Jamie Carswell, co-chair of the London Housing Directors’ Group, has described the boroughs gearing up for a continuing renaissance. And on the Milton Avenue pavement Khan enthused about the attitude to council housing of levelling up secretary Michael Gove, describing him as “somebody I think we can work with. Credit where it’s due, I think he understands the needs of our city”.
No one from Khan’s City Hall has so praised a minister with housing responsibilities since its earliest days, when Copley’s predecessor James Murray hit it off with Theresa May’s housing minister, the then London MP and minister for London Gavin Barwell, and was pleased with deal he was able to strike with him.
The Mayor and Copley would like a lot more money from the government for social and other affordable housing for London. But the scene in the Milton Avenue sitting room did suggest that things could be looking up.
Photograph, left to right: Promise Knight, Tom Copley, Dawn Butler MP, Muhammed Butt and Sadiq Khan with his two hosts.
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