RBKC – What Future For Social Housing?

vultures

Last week we received shocking new information related to the recent public consultation on proposed changes to some of the policies in the RBKC Local Plan (otherwise known as the Core Strategy).  It would appear that the Council has abandoned yet another commitment made in the Local Plan, in Policy CH2 on Housing Diversity (pages 219-220), and did so even before the consultation was completed on 9th February.

Policy CH2, in its original form, required the provision of ‘the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing’ in all new major housing developments. The presumption was that this would amount to at least 50% affordable housing in each development, comprising a minimum of 85% social rented housing and 15% so-called ‘intermediate’ housing, which was defined as ‘the mid-point between the cost of social rented housing and the cost of entry-level market housing’. Eligibility for ‘intermediate’ housing applies to those with income levels significantly higher than those who would qualify for social rented housing. This means ‘intermediate’ housing is, by definition, more expensive to buy or rent than social housing and would not, therefore, be affordable to those who depend on the highly subsidised rent levels applying to social housing.

The original approved version of Policy CH2 included the following;

“The Council will require the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing with the presumption being at least 50% provision (comprised of ) a minimum of 15% intermediate housing in Golborne, St.Charles, Notting Barns, Norland, Colville, Earl’s Court and Cremorne wards. In all other wards a minimum of 85% social rented housing should be provided”

The Local Plan Partial Review proposed replacing this with;

“…..a Borough wide affordable housing target of between 30-35% (comprised of) 17% social/affordable rented housing and 83% intermediate housing”.

In other words the Council has driven a coach and horses through Policy CH2 by voting to implement the change quoted above replacing the 50% affordable requirement with a mere 30-35%, and then reducing the required quota of social rented housing within that overall figure to a mere 17%. (NB 17% of 35% is just 5.9%)

This will turn Policy CH2 completely on its head, shifting the emphasis away from social housing in favour of an 83% (ie 83% of 35%) quota for more expensive ‘intermediate’ housing in all new housing developments. This will be a significant betrayal of promises made in the Core Strategy, and is likely to have direct implications for the residents of social housing estates facing regeneration, the majority of whom live in the seven wards which were explicitly named in the original policy now set to be abandoned.

The named wards, most of which are in North Kensington, contain large social housing estates, many of which are facing, or already undergoing, regeneration. They appear to have been specially named in the original version of Policy CH2 to categorize them differently from the rest of the borough and apply a different set of rules and quotas to them. They were singled out for special treatment because the ghettoization of working class communities had been identified as a problem to be solved via their transformation into so-called ‘mixed communities’. The intention was to alter the population mix by encouraging middle class home buyers to move into regenerated working class areas. This would involve redevelopment at a higher density with the introduction of a significant proportion of new private housing for sale at market prices.

Additional new social housing was discouraged in these working class areas and encouraged elsewhere in the borough in the richer middle class areas. However, statistics published in the policy review document suggest that the 50% affordable housing targets have never been met. Perversely, the Council’s response to this failure has been to abandon the targets, and slash the social housing quotas, rather than to redouble its efforts to achieve the quotas by confronting the developers refusal to implement them.

housing graphic

It stands to reason that the attempt to encourage the building of new social housing in the richer parts of the borough was never going to work because the higher property values, and the prejudices of developers, would always militate against any such provision in richer areas. One has to wonder whether the planners ever actually believed that this part of the plan would work. In any case they have now abandoned any pretense of even trying to meet the social housing target, and the new policy proposal, which drops all reference to the seven working class wards, appears to have largely abandoned the idea of providing new social housing in the richer areas and, at the same time, subsumed the working class wards within a single new boroughwide quota system.

Under this boroughwide quota system social housing estates facing regeneration in traditionally working class wards may now be subject to added pressure to accommodate increased levels of ‘intermediate’ affordable housing. Might this lead to a reduction in the levels of social housing in those areas, and an increased risk that that some existing social tenants might be squeezed out during regeneration? We simply don’t know the answer to this question and it is very hard to tell from the vague wording of the proposed policy change described in the Local Plan Review.

The original approved version of the Local Plan Policy on estate regeneration (CH4) offered significant protection to sitting tenants of social rented housing by (1) ensuring no net loss of social rented housing, (2) guaranteeing that all sitting tenants would be rehoused in a way that meets their needs, and (3) guaranteeing a right-to-return to the same neighbourhood (following redevelopment) if the tenants so wish. In the Local Plan review document the Council accepts (on page 190) that this policy is appropriate in its original form and acknowledges that it sets out ‘the minimum requirements for meeting the Council’s legal duties towards existing tenants’. The guarantee of protection for sitting tenants thus appears to be absolute. However, such appearances can be deceptive, and in this case the guaranteed protection has already been significantly undermined by the new Decant Policy, introduced in 2013, which states that;

“The Council will seek to negotiate a Right to Return for as many affected eligible residents as possible….. This cannot be guaranteed and will depend on the particular circumstances of each individual regeneration scheme using this policy.”

We fear that this change may signal a significant diminution of the Council’s alleged commitment to protecting the rights of sitting tenants in the borough’s social housing estates. As stated above the review document acknowledges that the approved version of Policy CH4 set out the minimum requirements needed to meet the Council’s legal duties towards existing tenants. The new Decant Policy significantly dilutes these legal rights by removing the guarantee of a right-to-return. However, it should be noted that the Decant Policy also erodes the right to rehousing due to regeneration by restricting the offer of alternative accomodation to a single direct offer. The duty of the Council to ensure that tenants are rehoused in a way that meets their needs is supposedly satisfied by a Council assessment of what those needs are, with the tenant allowed no choice or say in the matter, and refusal of the sole offer would lead to eviction of the tenant and presumably relieve the Council of any further obligation to rehouse. Catch 22. One has to wonder what became of the legal rights supposedly guaranteed in Policy CH4 and what will be the implications of the erosion of these rights for social tenants facing decanting due to redevelopment of the estates on which they live.

The greatly reduced social housing quotas will mean that there will be almost no increase in the social housing stock throughout the borough, despite the existing long waiting lists and the likely increase in future need. This will be bad news for all those who qualify under means testing for the social housing waiting list but will have no prospect of ever being housed in the forseeable future.

As we said at the start of this piece there are strong indications that the decision to implement these changes was taken at a special joint Special Meeting of the RBKC Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee and the Public Realm Scrutiny Committee held on 2nd February. This was a full week before the public consultation on the issues concerned was due to end on 9th February, and was therefore a breach of protocol and a breach of faith which made a nonsense of the consultation process. This was not the first time, to our knowledge, that the Council had pre-empted the outcome of a public consultation on local planning issues. Acting in such an underhand way shows their obvious contempt for the public consultation process, and completely undermines the legitimacy of the consultation. Such behaviour also confirms our perception of them as entirely unprincipled and machiavellian, and leads us to believe that they are more than capable, when it serves their hidden agenda and there are reasons to avoid doing so overtly, of manipulating changes to housing policy by stealth and deception as we have suggested above.

“Across the Borough, the Council owns approximately 7,000 homes let at social rents representing 8 per cent of the total housing stock with a further 13,200 or 15.5 per cent owned by housing associations. Together this type of housing makes up over a quarter of the Borough’s total housing stock showing its significance as part of the overall housing mix. The need for such housing remains high, with approximately 3,000 people currently accepted onto the Council’s waiting list as being in priority need.”

The passage above is quoted from page 188 of the Local Plan Review document. Given the substantial reduction in the quotas for new social housing which the Council has voted to implement and their obsession with redeveloping the existing social housing estates as mixed communities in which most of the additional new housing will be either ‘intermediate’ or for sale to the private sector, the future of social housing in the Rotten Borough looks grim. The future for tenants of the existing social housing estates seems decidedly uncertain and the likelihood of adequate provision of new social housing to meet future need seems extremely remote. Under these circumstances we would have to say that the passage above reads more like an epitaph than a message of hope.

Much as we would like to blame the right wing RBKC leadership for this mess, the reality is that social housing has been underfunded and underprovided by successive governments for a very long time. However, the admission by RBKC to having 3,000 people in priority need on its waiting list, at the same time that it is voting to slash the quota of new social housing it plans to provide, can only be described as perverse and unconscionable. Responsibility for that does rest with RBKC, as well as with the GLA and Central Government, and there is little sign that any of these bodies intends to adopt a more progressive or humane attitude or direction.

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