Once again Boris Johnson has refused to answer important questions about the ‘Affordable Rent’ programme in London. Written questions by Nicky Gavron AM have failed to elicit informative or even intelligible answers to key questions such as the rents to be charged.
Proposals for ‘Affordable Rent’ – at rents of up to 80% of market rents often without security of tenure – were invited more than a year ago and Grant Shapps and Boris Johnson made statements about the ‘outcomes’ in July 2011. This amounted to little more than a list of providers who had been approved in some way. There were then detailed negotiations with, mostly, housing associations followed by a dribble of announcements from the Homes and Communities Agency about sums of money being awaded and contracts being signed. No details about the contracts have ever been released. Housing associations who have been given approval have been equally secretive about the homes that will be built, allegedly under a ‘gag’ imposed by the HCA.
This degree of secrecy is unusual for any public body, let alone a Mayor who made great claims about how ‘transparent’ his regime would be, especially as the information has clearly been collated. For many months – indeed since last July – Boris Johnson has been saying that the average rent would be around 65% of market rents. But no information has ever been released to show how this calculation had been done and whether the average has changed as more contracts have been negotiated.
It is plainly in the public interest that this information should be in the public domain and available for analysis, even if the commercial details of individual contracts are not released. Assembly Member Nicky Gavron therefore put in a series of detailed questions to Boris Johnson seeking publication of the information. The answers were evasive and amounted to a refusal to release information that is available in City Hall, at the HCA and in CLG.
Questions that need answers include:
- How many AR homes will be started and completed each year in each borough?
- How many existing social rented homes will be lost by being switched to much higher ‘Affordable Rents’ to help pay for the programme?
- What are the average rents for ‘Affordable Rent’ properties by bedroom size?
- Given the high rents of most of them, what plans have been made to allocate the homes when they are produced?
There has been a lot of speculation about the answers to these questions, for example due to the arguments that ensued after the intervention of several London boroughs to get the rents proposed in their areas reduced. Some housing associations have embraced the ‘Affordable Rent’ model enthusiastically – it fits with their warped values – whilst others have tried to find ways to mitigate the impact, for example by trying to keep the rents of family homes down, meeting the scheme’s objectives by pricing smaller homes much closer to ‘80% of market rents’ ceiling.
As the contracts novate from the HCA to the Mayor in April, when his new housing responsibilities commence, it is likely that all of this is leading up to a big announcement, full of the razzmatazz and dodgy statistics that Johnson is now famous for, as the Election campaign gets under way. I do hope no charitable housing association participates in such a launch but no doubt they will be expected to say how wonderful it all is.
With the 60% cut in public housing investment, and the final completions coming through from Labour’s last programme, the Affordable Rent programme is the only fig leaf the Government and the Mayor have to cover up their threadbare policies. They should not get away with refusing to put proper information in the public domain, and they should not get away with misleading the public that these homes are ‘affordable’ when most of them will be anything but.