This piece was first published in Londonist.
Lambeth Council likes to put across the claim that it does things differently. The current housing policy certainly matches this expectation. Whilst other London boroughs place a scented hankie over their nose and do deals with property developers, the Labour dominated Council has become a property developer.
Homes for Lambeth is the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) that was set up by Lambeth in October. An SPV allows a local authority to borrow from banks to build houses.
The SPV – essentially a business arm within the Town Hall – becomes the landlord, not the Council itself. This also means that rents can be set differently from council rents in the borough.
Lambeth Council argues that by borrowing money to build, any profit that is made can stay within the borough. Homes for Lambeth has been predicted to deliver between 15-20% profit for the Council.
It is a risky strategy. The SPV is at the mercy of any company on the free market. Lambeth Council admits that ultimately another organisation could come in and buy Homes for Lambeth.
The Labour group increased its majority on Lambeth Council last year to control 59 of the 63 seats. The manifesto pledged to build 1,000 new council homes during the duration of the four year period of office. The Council claims that 21,000 people are on the housing waiting list.
The main problem is that there are very few Council owned pieces of land where this can be achieved. This has led to the Town Hall itself is being redeveloped. £50m is being spent on a new ‘civic campus’ – largely paid for on the back of building a mix of social and private housing on the existing site.
The shortage of space is so serious that there is even the suggestion of building housing on top of the historic Minet library at Myatt’s Fields.
Elsewhere in Lambeth and the controversial ‘estate regeneration’ programme is the answer. The Council has identified six existing estates in the borough, plus the entirety of Somerleyton Road that can be regenerated. This basically means maxing out the space and building more.
But not all of these new homes will be made available for residents on the council house waiting list. The ambition of 1,000 new council homes appears to have become 1,000 new homes, with a mix of social, affordable and market rents.
Allowing private rents to prop up social rents is where estate regeneration is open to criticism. Cressingham Gardens on the edges of Brockwell Park was initially set on a consultation course where repair of the existing council stock was being considered.
When it became clear that the leafy surrounds of Brockwell Park would be attractive for the private market, repair became regeneration, and the Council stopped consulting on repairing homes.
Lambeth is now proposing to bulldoze the entire estate, and allow Homes for Lambeth to invest in a mix of social, affordable and private housing. The idea has been sold with the net gain of just 23 new council houses at the expense of an entire estate being demolished. Residents are awaiting the outcome of a recent High Court Judicial Review looking at the process of the consultation.
There has yet to be any official internal dissent from within the local Labour group on the Council. The right wing of the party maintains a tight grip from within the Town Hall. Nervous ward Cllr’s are looking over their shoulders as Momentum supporters grow in numbers at local ward meetings. Reclaim Brixton back in April was a wake up call for many.
The Council still likes to brand itself at a ‘Co-operative Council.’ Evicting genuine housing co-ops such as Carlton Mansions to put in place… co-operative housing would be amusing if we weren’t talking about people’s homes.
The delivery of 1,000 new homes by 2018 is an obtainable target. The real test will be if Homes for Lambeth manages to deliver in building homes for people in need in Lambeth, or to prop up the growing private sector that is forcing many local people out of the borough.
Allowing four property developers to pay for Council staff to sell the vision of the Nu Lambeth at a property jolly down in Cannes doesn’t sound like the actions of a local authority that has social housing high up on its agenda.