Man on a mission
With just 12 months to go until the Olympic Games begin, mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales tells Nick Duxbury why the host borough’s legacy is under threat and how he hopes to save it with an audacious new housing policy.
‘The plural of anecdote is not evidence’.
This quote has been printed out and pinned up above the desk of Newham Council’s directly elected mayor Sir Robin Wales. It’s a clear message to anyone visiting his shiny east London office: Sir Robin is a results man - a pragmatist.
Yet during our interview Sir Robin tells quite a few anecdotes, about people in his borough with housing need, and various council schemes to encourage aspiration. He also gives the impression of being somewhat idealistic - a man determined to empower people and drive social change across Newham, one of London’s most economically deprived areas, and one of six boroughs set to host the Olympics.
It is quickly clear that he’s a man of many apparent contradictions. Sir Robin is championing seemingly right-wing housing policies that prioritise those in employment - ‘don’t come and show us that you’re poor and you’re not working and the most needy,’ he states. But as a Labour politician of 29 years he is certainly no Tory. And though he has been knighted (in 2000, for services to local government) and his surname is Wales, he is, in fact, a proud working class Scot from a council estate in Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire.
Last year Sir Robin won his third directly elected term in a landslide victory, citing housing as one of his key policy areas. Before this he was a councillor in Newham for 20 years, so within this Labour heartland he’s a major political force with little opposition.
But whether he will go down in local history as a results man or an idealist depends largely on one thing: Newham’s Olympic legacy. While for millions around the world the 2012 games are all about athletic endeavour, for Sir Robin they concern two long-term, practical realities: regeneration and job creation.
The legacy promise was vague: to ‘transform the heart of east London’. For Newham it has centred around improving the lives of its residents - 18,000 of whom have never worked. The arrival of Westfield shopping centre at Stratford City - due to open in September - will create 10,000 jobs and the athletes village will create a mixed community for 8,000 residents. But after that things are less certain.
Since he became Newham’s first directly elected mayor in 2002, Sir Robin, who is on most of the Olympic committees, has fought tooth and nail to ensure the borough gets what it was promised.
With just 364 days until the 2012 games begin, however, he warns that a combination of government spending cuts and policy reforms are threatening the legacy for which he and London’s other Olympic boroughs - Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Hackney Barking and Dagenham and Waltham Forrest - have worked so tirelessly.
‘The Olympics are coming and [the government] have spent £9 billion on it, and one of the key things was to transform the east end of London,’ he says. ‘So just when we have an opportunity to get people into jobs they [the government] cut our money. They are reckless with the Olympic legacy. The six boroughs that have fought very hard for the legacy are not going to let the population down - but that means making cuts elsewhere.’
The council has had its overall budget hacked back by £75 million over the next four years, which equates to a 14 per cent cut and has had to find a further £68 million of savings to prevent the cuts impacting residents.
As part of his legacy plans, Sir Robin expects to get 5,000 people into work this year alone through the council’s workplace programme, which is a recruitment centre to get local jobs for local people and will cost Newham £5 million. Instead of the government providing the cash for this scheme in support of the legacy, he claims it has cut £160 per person from the council budget compared with just £6 per person from well-heeled Richmond.
‘You tell me how I’m supposed to trust these people [the government],’ he implores bitterly. ‘It’s like in the Titanic - we’re all in it together, but the first class passengers have lifeboats and the steerage passengers have nothing.’
Still, cuts or no cuts, Sir Robin believes the key to benefiting from the games’ economic legacy is motivating Newham’s residents to work. He’s taking a new hard-line approach to the benefits dependency culture. As part of this, the council is introducing a new social lettings policy that will prioritise those in employment but take into account need. ‘If you want to get somewhere for social rent: Get. A. Job.’ explains Sir Robin, eyes bulging with emphasis as he coils his thick Scottish vowels around these three all-important words.
‘The families that get the most support in our borough take an awful lot of money. Well, we are going to cut that. That’s not acceptable. They will have to start to behave in a different way. We will take a much tougher and clearer line. But we will incentivise and support those trying to work.’
It is somewhat confusing to hear this kind of rhetoric from a self-proclaimed ‘socialist’. Making work pay and creating balanced communities may be laudable aims, but in a Labour borough where 13.4 per cent of residents are unemployed and 25 per cent are living in poverty they may prove unpopular. However, Sir Robin maintains he is a ‘clear lefty’ and argues that he ‘cares too much’ about the welfare state not to intervene in the dependency culture.
‘I don’t want to manage poverty,’ he says. ‘I want to encourage aspiration and ambition. I want to encourage the squeezed middle; someone needs to stand up for those on low incomes.’
This ideal is intended to create an ‘economically active’ and mixed community in the athlete’s village. Brendan Sarsfield, chief executive of Family Mosaic, which has 500 homes in Newham, says the policy ‘has merit’, but warns that it will be difficult to impliment because landlords still have their statutory responsibilies to vulnerable tenants.
The principle drives the mayor’s equally radical plans for the private rented sector, which makes up 35 per cent of housing in the borough and has a 60 per cent annual turnover of tenants compared with 5 per cent in the social sector.
The council wants to licence all homes of multiple occupation and private rented sector homes. More than this, Sir Robin is working to set up a special purpose vehicle to buy properties from ‘unscrupulous’ or poor quality private landlords in the borough and rent them on long-term tenancies. He hopes this will create mixed communities that people will want to live in long-term so the borough does not become ‘a transit camp’ of people just passing through on their way to better things.
Sir Robin wants to take advantage of low local authority borrowing rates to buy and let the properties itself so it would benefit from the rental income and any increase in capital values. But the scheme, which is at an early stage, could also use cash from institutional investors, including the council’s own pension fund.
Buying private rented sector homes would be a bold move for the council in tight financial times - but Sir Robin has never been afraid to stick his neck out.
The most recent example is Newham’s £40 million loan to local football team West Ham, helping it controversially beat rival club Tottenham Hotspur to secure the £496 million Olympic stadium for its new home after the games. Earlier this month it emerged that an Olympic Park Legacy Company employee had been employed as a consultant for West Ham, triggering an investigation. Sir Robin’s reaction at the time to the controversy was typically bullish. ‘Any rational person will say “it is a no-brainer, this is by far the best bid - let’s get on with it”.’
He has little time for those who don’t share his vision for Newham. But given the ‘savage’ and ‘reckless’ government cuts he says are threatening the borough’s legacy, it is hard to understand how the council can afford some of its schemes.
The answer, according to Sir Robin, lies in saving’s resulting from the council’s move in 2008 to new offices, Building 1000 - a gigantic glass box sprawled on otherwise empty land across the Thames from City Airport. After spending £111 million on the building, a BBC investigation last December revealed the council spent an additional £18.7 million furnishing it, prompting coalition government claims that it resembled a ‘glitzy west end nightclub’.
But Sir Robin maintains the move is why the council is not closing services such as libraries or children’s centres. ‘This building will save us £12 million in accommodation costs alone by the end of next year,’ he states.
Looking across the open plan office space, it certainly doesn’t have a ‘west end nightclub’ vibe. Much more notable is the eerie number of empty work stations - a grim reflection of the council’s decision to shed 200 jobs this year and renegotiate the conditions of employment with other staff.
While Sir Robin, whose own salary of £81,029 has increased from £58,535 since 2002, concedes that savings must be made, he disagrees with the speed at which the government is making them.
‘Spread over three years I could have done it in a much better way,’ he concludes gravely. ‘But this determination by [communities secretary] Eric Pickles to show that he is the toughest cabinet minister around, combined with the recklessness and incompetence of this government…’
There is plenty of evidence to reassure that Sir Robin is doing whatever he has to in order to protect Newham’s Olympic legacy. But as the quote above this results man’s desk reminds, blaming government cuts won’t wash with the electorate if he fails.
Newham’s social lettings policy
Newham Council proposes to prioritise housing applicants on its 28,000-person housing waiting list on the basis of employment - although the council will also consider housing need in allocation decisions. The plan is to retain the existing banding system but prioritise anyone that meets the employment criteria. Where more than one person meets the criteria, the council will choose on the basis of application dates.
However, there are some hurdles to overcome. The council doesn’t have data on the number of people on the housing register who are employed, so it will have to carry out questionnaires. It must also undertake a consultation process before the policy goes to the council’s cabinet in February 2012 which might flag up some problems.
For instance, aiding what Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales calls the ‘squeezed middle’ could come at the cost of helping the needy whose chances of obtaining work, and therefore a home, are slim. Questions like ‘what will happen if someone loses their job?’ are currently unanswered.
Isn’t this policy similar in its objectives to those of the coalition’s benefit reforms? Sir Robin denies this, and maintains that he sees people on benefits as part of the balanced community he is seeking, whereas the government is driving poor people out of wealthier parts of London and that’s a mistake. ‘They [the government] are basically saying that if you are poor you should live in poor areas.’
Sir Robin acknowledges that benefit caps due to come in next year and what he dubs the government’s ‘unaffordable’ rent (under which landlords charge rents at up to 80 per cent of market value and which Sir Robin says the borough needs a ‘mix’ of) could result in an exodus of people moving from more expensive boroughs to Newham and complicating this policy. But he’s adamant it will work.