Blog Post

In praise of Ken (and maybe Boris)

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

Feeling (uncharacteristically since May) in a positive frame of mind, I had planned three posts this week all of which intended to say something good about government policy.  It was only after some cogitation that I realised all three of the ideas I liked were leftovers from Labour administrations but I am willing to give credit where it is due if the coalition picks up and implements sensible reforms.  Unfortunately, of the three – Boris Johnson’s plans for social housing mobility in London, the council housing finance proposals, and strong steps towards encouraging mutualisation in housing – the latter two announcements have been deferred with the Localism Bill from this week until a point in the future.  I certainly don’t feel able to commend the coalition until I’ve seen confirmation of the plans in writing.

So, for the moment, that leaves Mayor Johnson and mobility for social tenants, which will hopefully be a precursor to improvements in mobility for tenants nationally as well.  His consultation paper, introduced in the Mayor’s usual combative style, can in fact be sourced back to Mayor Livingstone’s housing strategy.  Of course, Johnson eschews the opportunity to highlight a bipartisan measure in favour of trying to take all the credit for himself.

Livingstone’s approach to mobility had two drivers in addition to the principle that more mobility for social tenants was a good thing in itself.  First, The London Plan had a major focus on redeveloping swathes of east London where very large housing sites were available and there were huge opportunities to create sustainable new communities (including the Olympic sites).  But if a large and increasing share of London’s available capital resources went to support new affordable homes in only a few boroughs, a mechanism had to found to ensure that the benefits of new development were more widely shared amongst Londoners as a whole.  

Existing sub-regional arrangements, good in themselves, were not enough and a pan-London mobility scheme, starting with a share of new development and growing gradually to take in a share of re-lets across the capital, became an essential element of the Plan.  Secondly, Livingstone identified a particular problem with wheelchair standard and other homes adapted for disabled people.  Frequently such homes were being let to people not in need of them whilst others in dire need were not eligible because they did not live in the same borough.  A wider geographic system and pan-London register of dwellings and households was needed to make best use of these scarce resources.  

These are good examples of circumstances where localism is not enough and a wider area or regional approach is essential for good policy.  Anyone reading the consultation paper will be struck by how complex it can be to achieve a balance between local, sub-regional, regional and cross-regional needs. 

The consultation paper shows some concern that the government’s proposals on tenure (with much more flexibility given to landlords to vary the length and terms of some tenancies) will make mobility schemes harder to operate: users are already often bewildered by the complexity of existing schemes.  And it is also sensible in arguing that the scheme should not incorporate much by way of ‘conditionality’ – such as a requirement that tenants moving must be in or accessing work or training.  

Overall, it must be said, the consultation paper shows little actual progress since Johnson took over, now 2 ½ years ago.  Livingstone had put in place the necessary requirements on landlords as part of the 2008-11 London affordable housing programme.  We should be well beyond the stage of a consultation paper.  The paper itself is still aspirational in tone and a long way from real fruition.  It may be that it will not be implemented until Mayor Livingstone is back on the throne in 2012.

Mobility for London’s social tenants: An HCA London Board Consultation, December 2010.