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Carolyn Downs: Without housing reform our work is wasted

Carolyn Downs
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I was asked the other day what I Iike and dislike most about my job.

I didn’t have to think for long; what I like is having a positive impact on people’s lives.

What I like least is very specific to the circumstances of living in a country that is divided in so many ways: geographically, remain vs leave, the haves and the have-nots. Working in one of Europe’s most diverse communities, in one of the most densely populated parts of the capital, those contrasts can be very stark. There is nothing I dislike more than dealing with the impact of the housing crisis and feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the scale of what is happening on our doorstep and our inability to deal with it sufficiently.

People use the words ‘housing crisis’ quite freely. Working in Brent I see it and feel it daily.

Average house prices in the borough are £437,500 and average wages are £31,000. This year 1,300 people have been hit by cuts to their benefits. There are around 8,000 council tenants in the borough, 3,000 leaseholders and 2,542 people in temporary accommodation with 3,745 households on the waiting list for social housing. That’s not to mention those in housing association accommodation.

There were 2,666 new homes built in Brent last year, and that is one of the highest figures in London, although the headline figure is a little misleading as when you exclude non-conventional housing supply, which includes student accommodation, the figure falls to 1,306 new homes. Over the past five years we have averaged 1,655 new homes built every year, or 1,091 a year excluding non-conventional housing supply. When you consider that our latest house building target is 3,000 new homes per annum you can begin to see why it feels like an impossible task, especially given the little available land locally and very little owned by ourselves.

People use the term ‘temporary accommodation’ but I wonder if they understand what ‘temporary’ really means for a family needing a three- or four-bedroom council property. In Brent, like elsewhere in London, it can take more than a decade to permanently house such a family. That is not temporary!

That said, there are some real positives about how we are trying to tackle the issues.

On average, over the past five years we have given planning approval to more than 2,000 new homes a year, with completions growing year-on-year. We have just brought the management of our own stock back in-house to ensure that we can drive the regeneration, development and building of houses of our own stock.

We’ve introduced selective and additional licensing of private landlords and our zero-tolerance stance against rogue landlords has seen us take more than 110 successful prosecutions through the courts since January 2016. The licensing enforcement team works with landlords to provide a decent standard of living for tenants in Brent and encourages landlords to apply for a licence to help drive up standards in the private rented sector.

We are also looking to set up joint venture housebuilding partnerships with private sector providers, which would generate hundreds of new homes and a financial return to the council.

Wembley Park is one of the larger new developments in the capital, with 11,000 new homes, of which over 33% are affordable. Using a build-to-rent model brings the developer’s revenue stream in earlier as the properties are rented out, rather than waiting for them to be sold. This is rapidly bringing forward the development of these homes.

Our estate regeneration in South Kilburn is gathering more awards all the time. Every existing tenant is being rehoused in the new properties after moving just once, from the old block and into the new.

We have a large One Public Estate programme in the north of the borough working with the hospital trust, Transport for London and the University of Westminster, which we hope will deliver new homes and significant levels of key worker accommodation for the NHS, university and wider public sector.

But most exciting is the creation of a 100% owned council investment vehicle, which is buying properties. We have now acquired more than 100 properties, our housing duty for which we are discharging to the council’s company as the landlord. Residents are happy with the arrangement as they have affordable rents; they would not have been happy to be discharged into the private rented sector.

But what is most striking is the need for the government to act in a radical and co-ordinated way to enable councils to build more homes and increase our ability to borrow, to stop land banking and to better fund councils who are struggling to deal with the levels of homelessness in the country.

Without these measures we will continue to do a fantastic job but fail to solve the problem. That can’t be right.

Carolyn Downs, chief executive, Brent LBC

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