Darren Rodwell is leader of Barking & Dagenham Council, London Councils’ executive member for housing and planning, and a vice chair and Labour spokesman for the environment, economy, housing and transport board of the Local Government Association Labour Group. Here he writes in a personal capacity.
As we begin 2020, I’ve given some thought to my housing “asks” for the coming decade. Like all New Year resolutions, it’s based on past failures and missed opportunities.
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Becontree estate, which went on to become part of Barking & Dagenham, the borough I lead. Like all 100-year-olds, we are wishing for a letter from the Queen. Built to rehouse traditional East Enders, the Becontree marked a new dawn for housing in Britain. A product of the 1911 Addison Act, it ushered in what we would later call council housing. Back in the Roaring Twenties, the Becontree became the largest council estate in the world.
Wide grassed verges, from which a thousand daffodils emerge every spring, are all that remains from those times. Before the estate was built, they formed a very different kind of bedding as the base for railway tracks laid to bring building materials in from the Thames. The ambition of the London County Council, which built the estate, knew no bounds. By 1933, 27,000 houses had been constructed. If we were to build that number today, it would cost around £6.75 billion. Can you imagine us doing that? The LCC also provided schools, community halls and other social infrastructure.
It took a world war to bring us to our senses and realise that we needed to invest in housing on that scale, but problems with the high rise council homes built in the 1960s changed minds. The old Victorian streets which had made way for them suddenly didn’t seem quite so Dickensian. Of course, we were looking through rose-tinted glasses. But by the end of the last century, much affordable housing had become something you settled for rather than chose. Home ownership became the dominant creed, and in the 1980s council house building was put on a life support machine.
In many other Western democracies this was simply not the case. But subsequent UK governments, including those of New Labour, did little to reverse the UK trend. Today, the crisis in affordable housing has never been more acute. Under our very noses, up and down the country, behind all those net curtains, the debate that your home shouldn’t cost you the earth, has returned. We need to wake up and smell the coffee.
As we move into the second decade of the new century, old-style class divisions have disappeared. But Britain is more divided than ever before by housing tenure. The richest live beyond their own and everybody else’s wildest dreams, and what’s left of our former council housing stock is available only to the neediest. The majority, the squeezed middle, sometimes have the bank of mum and dad, but only if they’re lucky.
Building communities is as important in today’s London as it was for Edwardian London. After all, our capital is not just the City of London. It needs workers to keep it running and our workers need somewhere they can live and grow. It will take a collective effort across public, private and voluntary sectors if we are to come up with a plan to put to the government to achieve this.
That history and those ambitions inform my housing wish list for the new decade. Judging by what I hear from colleagues from all political parties and parts of the housing sector, I think a desire for the items on it is widely shared.
End Right To Buy discounts and reinvest the profits from sales in building new homes
If the Right to Buy is to continue, I would end the discounts that go with it and allow local authorities to keep 100 per cent of the receipts from the sales that remain to invest in building new stock for the future. Similarly, the host council should retain part of the asset of shared ownership properties sold under the Right to Buy. The Right to Buy may be good for the individual, but its long-term impact has been to polarise communities, and the inability of local authorities to reinvest the proceeds has hampered affordable house building. The time for reform is long overdue.
Tackle rogue landlords
Most landlords are good and decent, but the rogue variety has flourished as the Buy To Let market has grown. On the Becontree, Right to Buy has played a huge part in the growth of Buy to Let – more so than in most other places. That’s one reason why Barking & Dagenham has become the first London borough to implement borough-wide private sector landlord licensing. This gives us greater powers to identify and take action against the bad landlords.
All London boroughs want to tackle the rogues, but are having to do so while coping with a 63 per cent reduction in government funding over the last 10 years. What we really need is a London-wide scheme administered on behalf of London Councils to help deal with landlords who let their properties go to rack and ruin and fail to take responsibility for addressing the behaviour of anti-social tenants.
We also need to be able to impose rogue landlord orders. At the moment, local authorities pick up the tab for clearing up fly-tipping and clamping down on the behaviour of problematic tenants. Under a rogue landlord order system, the costs would be born by the landlord instead. At the moment, local authorities face an uphill struggle going to court and waiting months for a decision that might cost thousands of pounds in legal fees. A pre-agreed legal order, signed off by a judge, would enable us to recover those costs from the guilty landlords at no loss to local taxpayers.
Map infrastructure need for the next generation
It’s not all about bricks and mortar. Hearts and minds make communities too. We need to take a more rounded view of this. We should establish and map soft or social infrastructure needs, such as transport, schools, parks, community halls and GP surgeries. The whole country needs this, London included. London needs it because it is a vast oversimplification to talk about the poor north and the rich south. Yes, there are regional inequalities, but there are towns in London that figure in the Index of Multiple Deprivation just as often as places in the northern metropolitan areas.
Maximising brownfield for housing
Who can have failed to be moved by images of the fires in Australia or film of our polar ice caps melting into the sea? Our environment is precious and, as the leader of a council with some of London’s best parks, I don’t want to bulldoze over the countryside. But sometimes land that is obvious brownfield in reality is nonetheless officially deemed to be on the Green Belt. We need a modicum of common sense about this. For example, Barking and Dagenham College’s car park is technically classed as Green Belt, but has been under tarmac since 1952. The college wanted to upgrade its offer to the local community by investing in more buildings for educational use. However, the car park’s Green Belt designation prevented it.
We have seen a huge growth in short-term lets by large multinational institutions in the last few years. Research by London Councils shows that one in every 50 homes in the capital is now let short-term some of the time. Around 73,000 of these are let through Airbnb and others like it. According to the ministry for housing, communities and local government, London boroughs approved 67,884 new homes between 2017-2019. The lesson is that the provision of permanent homes is barely keeping pace with those coming on to the short term letting market.
This is a more and more pressing issue. Fellow local government leaders tell me privately that lots of their own properties are being used for short term letting. Incorporating a database of short term lets into a larger licensing scheme would help local authorities regulate this situation in the interests of their local communities.
Over the last 40 years, the Buy to Let market has grown beyond recognition. This may be good for investors, but the side effects of absent landlords and anti-social tenants has caused untold costs no accountant could calculate in full. Should we treat privately rented properties more like private businesses and have an index of them in each community? It’s not local government’s job to subsidise the operating costs of the private sector, so councils need a mechanism that ensures they are not the ones who meet the financial costs when Buy to Let dwellings or houses in multiple occupation are a source of anti-social behaviour, noise nuisance, fly tipping and so on. Perhaps we need to levy a charge on landlords who are responsible for social misendeavours.
Bite the bullet and use the power to inspect
It’s clear to me that safety in construction and maintenance of both private and public buildings is too low on the agenda of the house building industry. Grenfell should have been a wake up call for those who build high-rise blocks. Yet since that fateful night, more questions have been raised about the safety of all public and private buildings. Since Grenfell, we have seen dangerous fires take hold in lower-rise blocks, including at Samuel Garside House in Barking, Worcester Place in Sutton and Harry Zeital Way in Hackney, as well as at student accommodation in Bolton.
Grenfell was a wake-up call in how not to manage high-rise blocks, yet only a very small number have been remediated in the two-and-a-half years since. We need a review of the safety inspection regime. I’m talking to the Local Government Association, London Councils and individual local authorities about the need for more powers to inspect private properties, so that people feel safe in their homes. Above all, we cannot allow a situation to continue where profit comes before people. We need to bite the bullet and use the power to inspect.
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