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From ‘homes for votes’ to ‘homes for people’

It was a moment of great drama when long-time former Labour Group Leader, Paul Dimoldenberg, won his nemesis Shirley Porter’s old seat of Hyde Park Ward last May and Labour took control of the council that had once been notorious for her ‘Homes for Votes’ policy in the 1980s. 

Labour arrived at City Hall with a detailed Manifesto and a raft of housing commitments. One promise was to establish a Housing Review as part of the ‘Future of Westminster Commission’. Strong groups of experts were appointed to fundamentally examine housing supply and homelessness and a new citywide Residents Panel was appointed to look at how to improve the management of the council’s own homes. 

The Review started by studying in detail the pipeline of schemes on the council’s own land, quickly re-setting the relationship between Westminster and the London Mayor, leading to the council gaining over £60m extra in grant in addition to a major increase in the use of its own resources. Scandalously, the Tories had refused to hold ballots on the two big regeneration schemes, Church Street and Ebury, meaning that they did not qualify for grant. By going out to residents and explaining our strategy we held very successful ballots, gained tens of millions of extra grant, and increased the number of social rent homes in these two projects by 158. Overall, we added over 300 council homes for social rent in current Council building schemes. 

The current state of play is that over the course of  this council term (to 2026/27) we are on course to build over 1000 social rent homes (nearly 700 net taking account of reprovision) on our own land, alongside around 200 new homes for intermediate rent. Our longer-term pipeline contains many more truly affordable homes, and we are continuing to look for ways to strengthen this position further. Council homes for social rent on council land is our mantra because we have around 3000 households in temporary accommodation and over 4000 on our housing register and, when it comes to building social rent, land we already own gives us the best bang for our buck. 

Despite all our efforts we will only put a dent in the problem rather than solving it – only sustained government action over a decade and more will do that. But every home provided means a family or individual has a real opportunity to build a life in a genuinely affordable home. 

There is no silver bullet on housing supply. We have made a good start on our own land, but we will leave no stone unturned to try to get more truly affordable homes. For example, we have embarked on a revision of the City Plan to get more truly affordable homes out of the planning system (for example by requiring small luxury developments to contribute to tackling the housing crisis) and we are talking to the city’s registered providers about what more they can do. 

There is also great urgency to tackle the crisis in temporary accommodation (TA) that we inherited, especially as homelessness is likely to grow as the housing market deteriorates. We are putting around £170m into acquisitions for temporary accommodation which should provide around 270 homes either in the city or within a 30-minute bus journey. We will inevitably still rely on procurement of private rented homes, but we are determined to try to make sure they are of a decent standard and as close to support networks as possible. This is not at all easy, given that the Government’s frozen local housing allowance means less than 0.5% of homes in Westminster are affordable for those reliant on housing benefit. 

We are also working on improving the package of support to households in TA to reduce the impact it has on them, and especially on children.  

Even people on decent incomes struggle to find affordable homes in Westminster, so through changes to our Affordable Housing Supplementary Planning Document  and reform of our practices we are repurposing ‘intermediate homes’ so they directly benefit key workers, mainly those earning less than £60K, rather than general demand. We think a local offer to health and transport workers and others will be very popular and will help our city in many ways. Collaboration with the private sector and other public bodies over their developments and use of local assets will play a crucial part in helping build the key worker housing we need for the future.    

More than most places, Westminster is associated with global dirty money being put into property that is often not used as a home. We are adopting an empty homes strategy and have appointed an empty homes officer to assess the scale of the problem and tackle the most egregious cases and find new ways to help homes back into use and to bring life back to communities at risk of being hollowed out. This also fits our dirty money strategy which has attracted attention because of the strong action being taken against ‘candy shops’ as well as on residential. 

These are our main initiatives on housing supply; we have also been active on the private rented sector, starting a review of housing allocations, and rethinking our Rough Sleepers Strategy – another big issue with a Westminster focus. Our Residents Panel has been getting to grips with a wide range of issues in housing management, including starting work on our proposed Repairs Charter and our Leaseholders Charter, and we are delivering on our promise to increase the number of housing officers and to re-open estate offices.  

There is a strong overlap between housing and our vitally important work to help people through the cost-of-living crisis. We have set up a £1m+ rent support fund to assist those facing the 7% rent increase without full benefit support and, amongst other things, we have provided over £14m in cost-of-living support to local families and are extending our free school meals offer, currently for all primary pupils as of January, to include nursery and key stage 3 pupils thanks to some help from Sadiq Khan.  

The housing crisis is now so severe that there is no way out without strong and sustained government action. The General Election is drawing closer but, in the meantime, we will do everything we can to make as big a contribution as possible from Labour Westminster.

Cllr Adam Hug is the Leader of Westminster City Council.

Steve Hilditch is Chair of the Westminster Housing Review

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Council rents: dodgy stats and dodgy conclusions

A Guardian poll claims that nearly 80% of respondents agree with the statement that councils should charge high-earning social tenants higher rents.  The Guardian quotes twitter comments including one saying people who can afford to live in the private sector should not be in social housing. ‘Simple. Irrefutable.’
The initial story that provoked such a strong public opinion and huge media coverage came from Westminster City Council.  That in itself should raise suspicions.  The Guardian leads its poll – and misleads its readers – with ‘facts’: that in Westminster 200 social tenants earn more that £100,000 a year and 2,200 earn more than £50,000.  Who then could disagree with the policy they are proposing?  But closer scrutiny leads to the information that the figures are estimates based on a survey carried out in 2006.  There is no information as to whether these are single earners of couples (if both earn average wages, household income would be £50k) and whether lessees were excluded. Personally I just don’t trust this data and have put in a freedom of information request to get the calculations. 
Westminster are using these ‘facts’ as a rapier argument to front their desire to have greater local powers to set council rents.  Very successful bit of propaganda so far.  But beware – they want the local power because they want to put their rents up for everyone not just ‘the rich’.
It is interesting to ruminate on this story.  First, if the figures are correct they show a remarkable amount of social mobility in council housing (2,200 is more than about 1 in 6 of Westminster’s tenants).  Well done council housing for helping people achieve their aspirations.  Secondly, it shows that council housing, despite everything, can still achieve mixed income communities.  Well done council housing.  Thirdly, it makes an interesting change, even if it is dodgy, to see some Tories wanting to get rid of people it regards as rich when most of their policies, especially around local housing allowance, are about getting rid of the poor.
Fourthly, beware polls, even in the Guardian.  People voted yes to a statement that social housing ‘should be available only to those who need it most and increasing rents for high earners would encourage them to move on’ – a totally different statement from the headline that 4 in 5 agreed that ‘councils should be allowed to charge high-earning social tenants higher rents’.  So who was trying to prove what and for what reason?
Fifthly, there would be the small matter of implementation.  To charge higher rents to some because of their income, the council would need to know and be able to verify the income of all their tenants.  It would be dodgy getting housing benefit information for this purpose, and that wouldn’t identify high earners.  I see armies of means-testers knocking on doors, sending out forms and making detailed verification checks.  Even if some simpler means were found (eg higher rents for higher tax payers) the information would have to be transferred from HMRC or self-declared – and in any case would not ‘catch’ the 2 income household earning £25K each.  And it would make the marginal rate of tax for a person passing the higher tax rate threshold totally unsustainable. 
This is a well-worn path trodden by people who like to discredit social housing – there is a fine tradition of stories about council tenants with Jags outside the front door – but in my view it is totally unimplementable even if you like the principle.  So, it has been a bit of a propaganda victory for Westminster, rekindling a few old prejudices.  But even this government isn’t daft enough to do what Westminster wants.  Or is it?

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Rough sleeping is the tip of the iceberg

In a recent post we covered the story of Westminster Council’s plans to introduce a new bye-law for the Victoria area of the city to ban street sleeping and soup runs.

Here, Nicky Gavron AM, Labour’s Spokesperson for Housing and Planning on the London Assembly, says that this ban is just one of many policies that will impact on homelessness.

Nicky Gavron AM
Nicky Gavron AM

Former Deputy Mayor of London. London Assembly Member. Deputy Chair of the Planning Committee & GLA Labour Spokesperson for Planning.

The council made infamous by Shirley Porter is at it again, forcing people it considers undesirable out of the borough. In the eighties it was low income Labour-voting families; this time it’s some of society’s most vulnerable.

Westminster City Council’s pursuit of a byelaw to make it an offence to sleep rough and give away food in the most salubrious parts of the borough has been well documented.

Cllr Daniel Astaire, the council’s Cabinet Member for Society, Families and Adult Services audaciously told the Daily Mirror:

Soup runs have no place in the 21st century. It is undignified that people are being fed on the streets. They actually encourage people to sleep rough with all the dangers that entails. Our priority is to get people off the streets altogether. We have a range of services that can help do that.

But what Westminster councillors have not mentioned is that they are actively seeking to close the very hostels and services that help people off the streets and into a life of normality. One of these is the 100-plus bed Victoria Hostel in Castle Lane.

Westminster – like all borough councils – is given a budget to provide services for people in acute housing need, including rough sleepers. Most boroughs have had this budget cut, but Westminster has actually been given an increase – presumably in recognition of the need. And instead of using this extra money to carry out its legal and moral duty to help rough sleepers, it is slashing services and is prepared to waste police time and court resources by criminalising those who need help.

It’s difficult not to think that this is anything other than a cynical manoeuvre to turn Westminster into one big gated-community, and to seal it and its more well heeled residents off from a problem that’s getting worse across the city.

The combination of a stalling economy, rising unemployment, housing and benefit reforms will all conspire to push many more people into homelessness and increase levels of rough sleeping.

No assessment has been made by the government of the costs and impact of their housing and welfare reforms. The government’s total cap on benefits, which will hammer the budgets of families on low incomes, combined with their plan to raise social housing rents to 80 per cent of market rates will put intolerable stress on housing services in London.

Add to this the housing benefit reforms and the plan to make it easier for councils to discharge their homelessness duty, and the increase in rough sleeping seems inevitable.

Most damaging of all will be raising the age threshold for the Single Room Rate from 25 to 35. As one charity leader told me, rough sleepers will struggle to find normal shared housing. Forcing people to live together is a policy that has failed in the past and will fail again.

The Government must act now to stop rough sleeping getting worse. If it wants to convince us that these reforms are not ideologically driven, it must get tough with councils like Westminster by refusing this byelaw and reintroducing ring-fencing for those budgets that protect vulnerable people.

Without this, there is little the Mayor’s London Delivery Board on rough sleeping will be able to do to hold back the tide.

Most crucial of all, the government must rethink its housing and benefit reforms. As they stand they will lead to social segregation on an unprecedented scale – and rough sleeping is just the tip of the iceberg.

You can follow Nicky Gavron on Twitter at  This article also appeared in Inside Housing magazine.