Thoughts on Saturday’s Reclaim Brixton event

As the Leader of the Council in Lambeth, but also as someone who has lived here for many years, I want Lambeth to keep the ingredients of the place I moved to 20 years ago – to remain a distinctive, diverse and spirited borough.

This was clearly the intention of the vast majority who came on Saturday’s demo. It’s a shame that the predominantly peaceful outlook was hijacked by a small handful of people. You don’t bring eggs and masks to a peaceful demo if that isn’t your intention.

For a demo labelled ‘Reclaim Brixton’, it’s significant that the six arrests made on the day, were not Brixton residents, or even residents from other parts of London, but people who live outside the capital and came specifically to cause trouble.

They may have come to Brixton because it has a past and a name and attracted attention in the media because of it. Whatever their reasons, nothing could have been more emphatic than the real Brixton communities’ rejection of them. Be it the man who covered the glass outside Barnados and shepherded people away from the damage. Or the person who threw down a mop to trip up a vandal running away from the scene.

However, if the overall tone of the demo was clear – peaceful, community spirited – the central cause, or the list of demands, were more disparate.

Unsurprisingly, with less than a fortnight (on Saturday) to go until the general election, some of the reasons were political. Locally, the Greens have been trying hard to muster support on some of our housing estates proposed for redevelopment by playing into resident’s fears and distorting the council’s intentions.

I understand the worry of tenants who are being asked to work with and essentially trust the council about their most valued thing – their home. But I really reject the Greens description of the plans as ‘social cleansing’ or their attempts to make Cressingham Gardens a by-word for gentrification. Not only is the word social cleansing offensive and inflammatory – having spent time in former Yugoslavia in the early 90s, I know the use of the word here is grossly inappropriate.

But it’s also incredibly inaccurate. Surely gentrification only applies when people are being forced out of an area. I’m not saying this isn’t a problem in London (more on this later), but in the case of Cressingham Gardens, all the current tenants or home owners are able and have a right to stay on the estate. And the fact that the plan is for more social homes to be built, not less, regardless of which option is pursued, runs completely counter to gentrification.

Contrary to opposing trends over the last few years, the deeply unhelpful policy of Right to Buy and the lack of available land to build on – as a council we’re nonetheless strongly committed to both the concept of, and the delivery of, social homes. We’ve committed to building 1000 more. We want to provide those homes so that people from all walks of life can live in our borough. But the Greens oppose us at every turn when we try to do so. Their message is hugely contradictory.

Another more central issue of the demo was the future of Brixton Arches. Here the peaceful embrace around the arches could not have been further from the image of demonstrators smashing the window of a children’s charity. This was a genuine expression of wanting to protect something valued by the community – not simply to remain in the past – but because it contributes to unique character of Brixton and deserves to thrive in the future. As a public body Network Rail need to respond positively to the local community with clear timelines and guarantees around rent. And as a council, we’ll keep putting the pressure on them too.

The wider issue of gentrification is a much more complicated debate. I don’t speak to many people who want to return Brixton back to where it was ten years ago – a place people without jobs, a place with a reputation for crime, a place that didn’t feel safe. And so for many in the community the word “reclaim” felt inappropriate – it didn’t recognise the positive change that has taken place, and instead tried to put up boundaries in a place whose very strength has always been inclusivity and diversity.

We all have a responsibility for our communities. I believe that the council should intervene where it has the power to and to do so positively. To use the land we have on Somerleyton Road to provide new homes and community co-designed with local people; to use space on Pope’s Road to provide business space for new start-ups; to make sure the redesigned Town Hall provides new social homes in the centre of Brixton as well as community and business space.

But this is only part of the answer. For all Brixton’s uniqueness, the challenges are a very wide London phenomena. How to bring in investment without making a place bland or soulless? How to balance improvements in an area with making sure people can still afford to live there?  How to bring new jobs whilst making sure local people get the benefits of them? How to bring change in a way that at the same time addresses inequality and retains diversity?

The challenge is profound and no-one has all the answers. But we need to start asking the questions at a borough level, and critically at a London level with a new Mayor in post after May 2016 who will be up for facing the serious challenges facing us rather than playing the clown. And in our communities we need to bring different ideas and solutions to the table. Lambeth has always been at the forefront of pushing these debates, but our ultimate strength is in addressing these questions and working together to come up with some answers.


Why I went to the MIPIM conference

In my last blog I spoke about the huge demand for housing in Lambeth. Nonetheless, it’s worth repeating the facts. We already have 21,000 people on our housing register – that is, people waiting for a council home or for a transfer to a more suitable one – meanwhile our population is expected to grow by almost 30,000 by 2030.

All this means that there are simply not enough homes to go round. That pressure means that prices in the private sector both to rent and to buy are soaring, and for us as a council there is a rapidly growing demand for council homes.

I also detailed how we’re doing our best in Lambeth to tackle this housing crisis. We’re absolutely committed to building new homes – and let’s be clear, that’s the only real way to get us out of this crisis. However, I was also clear that we can’t do it on our own. And as I said in my speech on affordable housing at the conference, it would be naive to think that we could.

As a council committed to building new homes, we have to work with developers.

However, that doesn’t simply mean handing over the keys to the borough and letting them profit unbarred – no, we work with developers to get the homes we need, and we use our clout to get the best deal for Lambeth and its residents in doing so.

As a baseline we ask all developers to commit to 40% affordable housing in any new project (N.B. boroughs like Tory Wandsworth only have a target of 15%). In fact, with the Streatham Hub development we managed to achieve 50% affordable housing.

That said, as I mentioned in my last blog, the government hasn’t made it easy for us to hold up to this target – by introducing a minimum profit level into ‘viability tests’ for developers, this now means that the ability of the developer to make a profit from a site holds more sway than our local needs. That is, if they feel that building too many affordable homes will make the development unprofitable, then they don’t have to provide them. That makes things very difficult for us – however much we as a council strongly want to build more affordable housing, our hands are tied by national legislation.

But we don’t give up without a fight – Lambeth has secured a review mechanism for viability tests, which means that we get our fair share if the site ends up making more money than first evaluated. We also have all developer’s viability appraisals independently reviewed and scrutinised to check their analysis is fair. Often this ensures a substantial improvement in the deal we secure – indeed this was the case at Vauxhall Sky Gardens where the developers initially said it would not be viable for them to provide any affordable homes; we disputed this and actually secured 35 social rented and 6 shared ownership units.

Where viability issues mean we’re not able to achieve our 40% target, we always make sure developers provide as much affordable housing as they possibly can.  For instance, as part of the Vauxhall Nine Elms development we’ve secured 29% affordable housing in Eastbury House, 33.6% in Hampton House and 29.8% in Prince Consort House. And with the Keybridge House development we secured land for a new school.

I believe that affordable housing in new developments is crucial, not just to meet the growing demand for homes, but also so that those new developments end up as mixed communities, with a different mix of backgrounds and people. We don’t just want houses, we want homes that are part of, and contribute to, the community. That’s why it’s important to us that developers provide affordable housing on the same site.

For some boroughs, the principle of asking the developer to give them money for affordable housing instead of building the actual homes is attractive, but what that really means is that places with higher land value such as Vauxhall would price out ordinary people. We don’t want that to happen, so we always start from a point of wanting affordable homes provided on site.

In exceptional circumstances, we sometimes have to get developers to provide affordable housing slightly off their main site, but that can bring other benefits too. It’s not always about the number of new homes being built in total, but also about the number of people they can eventually house – that is, creating enough good family-sized homes too. For example, by agreeing to allow the developer to build off-site from the Shell development in Waterloo, we were able to secure 71 family sized social rented units and a new nursery on nearby Lollard Street, rather than 17 on-site 1 and 2 bedroom units which would not have met local family needs.

I also welcome Labour’s proposal announced yesterday to prioritise new homes for local people.

I think it’s important to give these messages loud and clear to developers – as I did on Wednesday at MIPIM.

*For the record: I didn’t get flown to Cannes, I caught the train to Olympia.  

Doing our bit to tackle the housing crisis

Various Coalition government policies have made it harder not easier for us to deliver the new and affordable homes we need in Lambeth – not least the 50% cuts to our funding – but we remain more committed than ever to doing so.

Lambeth is already one of the most densely populated boroughs in the country, and yet our population is anticipated to grow still further. The number of households is forecast to increase from 130,000 in 2011 to 158,000 in 2030.

That means there are simply going to be more households in need of homes than we have available.

At the same time, this increasing pressure on our local housing markets is causing prices in Lambeth, both to buy and to rent, to soar. Many local families are finding it increasingly difficult to find an affordable place to live.

Yet the Coalition government have slashed capital funding for social housing, as well as making it harder for us to require developers to provide a decent proportion of affordable homes. Likewise, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson has changed the definition of ‘affordable’ to 80% of market rent, which puts it far out of the reach of many ordinary families.

Government policies like the Bedroom Tax have again added yet more pressure to the growing housing demand and made it harder for our residents to make ends meet.

As a council, we do our best to lobby against these changes and to fight for a fairer deal for Lambeth. But meanwhile all this means that more and more people are approaching the council for social housing, and that more and more people – particularly those in work but struggling to make ends meet – are having to claim Housing Benefit.*

This is an unsustainable situation, and the only way to tackle it is to increase the number of homes in Lambeth.

That’s why – despite the raft of unhelpful policies from this Government – ensuring that new homes are being built to accommodate Lambeth’s growing population, and that existing council homes are kept at a good enough quality to remain in our stock for years to come, are two of our highest priorities as a council.

We have a good record of delivering new social and affordable housing. We’ve delivered 2866 new affordable homes so far in the last five years, and we’ve committed to building 1000 more new social homes over the next four.

But we can’t do this on our own. We must ensure we attract investment into Lambeth by working with housing associations and developers. So too we must be firm with developers on what we expect from them – demanding at least 40% affordable housing, and a mixture of good quality family sized and smaller accommodation too.

It also means working with the community; delivering new homes through innovative partnerships, like the 350 new homes we’re building at a range of social and affordable rent levels in Somerleyton Road; as well as regenerating estates where we know the quality of housing has not been good enough, like what we’re doing at the Myatts Field North project. This will also deliver 305 new homes, of which over half will be affordable. Both have included the community at every step of the way, provide new community spaces, and offer jobs to local people.

We’re also spending over £490m in improving the standard of the homes we already own, bringing them up to the Lambeth Housing Standard, which has been co-produced by Lambeth Tenants and Leaseholders. That’s the biggest ever investment in Lambeth’s homes. Each home we keep in good condition is another home for a Lambeth family to live in for years to come.

At the same time we’re working with those who are already in severe need to avoid homelessness. We have a duty to help them, but we don’t want families stuck in temporary accommodation. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for us. Families lack the stability of a settled home; meanwhile every pound we spend on funding a place in temporary accommodation is a pound we could have spent on building new homes. And it’s only through building those new homes that the pressure on housing demand can be quelled.

That’s why we’re offering people in temporary accommodation the opportunity to be supported into a secure, private tenancy – we do all the leg-work, putting the paperwork in place and ensuring that the tenancy is both stable and safe. That means a family with a more secure place to live and more money for us to invest back into Lambeth homes.

At the election we said that everyone in Lambeth deserves a decent home. It should be clear, the Coalition government and the Mayor of London have not made it easy for us, but we’re working hard to make this ambition a reality for our residents.


*In Lambeth, we have 21,000 people waiting on our housing register, many of whom live in overcrowded conditions.
We have 1750 people living in temporary accommodation.
Lambeth has the highest percentage of households receiving Housing Benefit of any region in the country, and the second highest number of Housing Benefit claimants in London.

Lambeth’s innovative approach to housing

Cross-posted from the London Labour Party blog.

Both supply and affordability pose big challenges for us in Lambeth, but we’re frustrated in our aims to provide new and affordable homes in the borough both by national policy and the Mayor of London. In particular, Boris Johnson’s plan to raise ‘affordable’ rent levels to 80% of market rents renders potential new homes unaffordable to most of the residents in need of housing in Lambeth.

Given what we’re up against, we’re having to develop new and innovative approaches to provide the kind of housing we want, and that our residents need. Key to this is keeping the community at the heart of what we do. Our exciting new project for Somerleyton Road in Brixton is a case in point. The project has brought together more than 400 local people, and is a partnership between Brixton Green (a community organisation), Ovalhouse (a community-run theatre) and Lambeth Council. Responding to what the local community told us they wanted, the project will bring new homes, work space, a theatre and possibly health and education facilities. The project will also guarantee employment and training opportunities for local people.

Lambeth Council will act as our own developer for the site, employing specialists to manage the design and build. In terms of providing new homes, this means we have more control over what we build, the types of tenure on offer, and the levels of rent set – we’re aiming for at least 40% of the homes to be set at council rent. This is a new and exciting model of working for Lambeth and a key example of our cooperative approach.

Another concern for us is that we don’t want families to be priced out of the borough as their households begin to grow. That’s why we were really pleased recently to gain agreement to create affordable family homes at Vauxhall City Farm in Zone 1. The original proposal from developers, St James, was for 14 small shared ownership homes on a site which is part of the wider regeneration of the Vauxhall area. However, through negotiation, we will now get eight larger homes for social rent, with more overall rooms. Furthermore, associated improvements to the farm, which welcomes over 20,000 visitors a year, will mean more learning and office space and a slight increase in land. This is another example of what imagination, collaboration and pragmatism can achieve; looking beyond the headline figure on affordable housing to the quality and type of homes that will be provided for local people.

However, in Lambeth we are not just committed to providing new homes, but also ensuring that the ones we do have are of a standard that means they can remain part of our stock for generations to come. That’s why we have created the Lambeth Homes Standard, which was developed in conjunction with residents and leaseholders. We are now investing £443m over the next four years to bring all our council-owned homes up to this standard.

Given the growing number of private renters in Lambeth, we are also committed to tackling the private rented sector, where rents and charges are soaring and rogue landlords are flourishing as demand grows. By working with other boroughs we will seek to find the most pragmatic way forward.