Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Flagship sunk

From: Inside edge

While UKIP has taken all the election headlines, in housing terms it’s hard to look beyond the Conservative defeat in the party’s flagship council of Hammersmith & Fulham.

The West London borough dubbed ‘David Cameron’s favourite council’ has pursued a radical strategy of cutting the council tax and cutting spending since it won power in 2006.

But it is of course also the birthplace of what I’ve come to think of as the third Conservative housing revolution. If the first was the right to buy and the second private finance for housing associations and deregulation of private renting, the third is about changing the nature of social housing completely.

The manifesto was of course the 2009 report for Localis called Principles for Social Housing Reform. Co-written by former Hammersmith & Fulham leader Stephen Greenhalgh, it argued that:

‘The current social housing is warehousing poverty in the core of our great cities – cities which need to be the very engines of economic growth. With fundamental reform, social housing would continue to be available to those who cannot house themselves and would provide properly for them, but the system would provide a hand up rather than a hand out to people who work hard and play by the rules.’

The report recommended the end of security of tenure and a national allocations framework for social housing, putting all tenants on near-market rents and the end of all capital subsidy for new homes.

Much of that agenda went on to be implemented under the coalition. The Localism Act allowed landlords to introduce fixed-term tenancies and change their allocation policies and subsidy was cut alongside ‘affordable’ rents. This may be a more moderate and voluntary version of the Localis agenda but the links are clear.

Back in West London, the council has used the new freedoms to change its allocations policy and slash its waiting list and favour intermediate rent and home ownership while selling off a proportion of social housing as it becomes vacant. And perhaps most controversially of all it’s pursued a regeneration strategy that includes the demolition of existing council estates like West Kensington and Gibbs Green as part of the Earl’s Court development and the creation of ‘decent neighbourhoods’ of high-priced homes.

Greenhalgh himself has since moved on from Hammersmith & Fulham to become London deputy mayor for policing and crime but the mantle of reform was taken up by Cabinet member for housing Andrew Johnson. As he put it in 2012:

‘We want to incentivise residents to make the most of their lives. Council housing can be a great safety net to help get people back on their feet — but it should be a springboard not a destination. The current system does not promote personal aspiration or provide tenants with any incentive to try to move into home ownership and does not make the best use of the housing we have.’

The idea of social housing as ‘a springboard not a destination’, as a form of A&E for people in temporary difficulty rather than a permanent home for people in need, mirrors the coalition’s wider programme of welfare reform. It’s a prescription that, as many people have blogged many times, amounts to the end of social housing as we’ve known it.

But now the Conservative revolutionaries of Hammersmith & Fulham have lost. Andrew Johnson was among the councillors who lost their seat in yesterday’s election though Conservative Home blogger Harry Phibbs kept his (see his reaction here). 

Labour regains control of the council after eight years out of power in which its councillors and local MP Andy Slaughter have campaigned vociferously against the Conservative housing policies.

Three of the five early pledges made by Labour ahead of the election featured housing:

  • Save our hospitals. The Conservative council plans to demolish Charing Cross Hospital to build flats for overseas investors. Labour will block this and defend our hospitals.
  • Homes for residents, not overseas investors. Conservative councillors approve more new homes for overseas investors than local people. Labour will reverse this and ensure homes are built that residents can afford and support social and private tenants
  • Put residents first, not property speculators. The Conservative Council puts property speculators first and ignores residents. Labour will give residents a real say with new powers.

The election was obviously about far more than just housing (see Dave Hill’s blog from Wednesday) but it will be fascinating to see what changes in Hammersmith & Fulham as a result.

Most immediately, what does the Labour victory mean for the residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates? Only on Wednesday they were appealing to David Cameron to intervene to save their homes. Now they have fresh hope – the scheme got planning permission last month but as Pete Apps reports this morning campaigners are optimistic about plans to transfer ownership of the homes to residents.   

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