Redbridge Council turning entrepreneur in effort ‘to house our own’
PUBLISHED: 14:30 10 August 2018
The leader of Redbridge Council sets out his vision for 1,000 new council houses built to last for the next century - as he slams government for “bureaucracy and blockages”. EMMA YOULE reports in the final of our Hidden Homeless series on Redbridge’s housing crisis
Redbridge Council leader Jas Athwal says his heart sank when keys to a new council house were handed to a tenant last month – only for the man to ask if he could buy the property.
At least one of the families moved into nine newly erected council homes in Hainault had been on the housing register for more than 14 years.
It reveals how desperately hard it is to get a council house in the Redbridge today – and why the man elected to run the council finds it difficult to see homes lost to Right to Buy.
“If you’re moving into a council house and on the first day you’re thinking I can afford to buy this, then there’s something wrong there, and that’s what I have a problem with,” said Cllr Athwal.
The council has lost 2,607 houses and flats in the past 10 years to Right to Buy, the policy enacted in the 1980s to allow council tenants to buy their homes at knock down prices.
“It takes money away from councils who are strapped for cash and certainly it takes money away from residents who desperately need it,” said the council leader. “And I think the government really needs to have a serious look at that.”
A key reason Redbridge has seen a soaring number of homeless families is the council’s lack of homes.
Cllr Athwal said Redbridge has far fewer council houses than neighbouring boroughs – around 4,000 compared to roughly 22,000 in Barking and Dagenham
This has forced the council to rely on renting flats and B&Bs from private landlords to house its homeless or placing people into its own aging hostel accommodation.
The cost to the local authority is massive.
It spent £29million last year paying to place people into temporary accommodation.
The quality is sometimes squalid and unfit for purpose the council leader admitted, saying: “Landlords get away with it, absolutely, because the problem we have is they know we are in dire need.” To tackle the issue, the council has won government approval to set up new landlord licensing schemes in 12 wards in Redbridge, meaning landlords in 14 of the boroughs 22 wards will now have to buy a licence from the council to rent their properties.
The ambition is that council officers will inspect every home in these areas before it is let, to clamp down on “rat-infested and flea-infested properties and raise health and safety standards” Cllr Athwal pledged.
As rocketing rents, benefit changes and the effects of austerity have fuelled housing need, the council has been forced to move 3,708 homeless families out of the borough in the five years to 2017.
This is in part due to inner London councils buying and renting properties to house their homeless in Redbridge, the council leader said – naming and shaming Westminster.
But, ideologically, this it is not where the council wants to be and Cllr Athwal set out an ambitious new housing vision as he spoke to the Recorder at the Town Hall.
The council is becoming more “entrepreneurial” he said, buying up properties in Redbridge, and over the next five years he has promised to build 1,000 new high-quality council homes.
To do this the town hall has set up a wholly-owned council housing company and has identified sites for development, as well as agreeing its local plan earlier this year.
“We should be building our own, we should be housing our own, and we should be maintaining it within Redbridge, and that’s what we’re building towards,” said Cllr Athwal.
He has seen the joy of tenants who are allocated a long-awaited council house. “To see the look in their eyes when they get the keys, it’s fantastic.”
But his administration has had to have difficult conversations with residents over recent years about the tiny chances of ever getting a council property.
“We had to actually be brutally honest and say, ‘Look, you’re never going to meet the requirements and your need is never going to be great enough and you’re just on the housing register for the hope of getting a home,” he said.
This has reduced the numbers on the register from about 12,000-13,000 down to 5,000 today.
The council leader said government bureaucracy is standing in the way of councils constructing – calling for an end to restrictions on local authorities borrowing to build homes.
He said town halls also have to overcome legal loopholes, find development partners and have the “blessings” of about four or five different government departments to build even 1,000 homes – when thousands more are needed.
“It almost feels like you’re constantly looking for different and innovative ways of overcoming bureaucracy and blockages,” he said.
“I think the government should just allow us to build and just say ‘You have a free hand, go ahead and do it’, but unfortunately that’s not the case.”
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