Just back from a seminar on Housing in London, hosted by the Lewisham Council, a couple of presentations and then some breakout sessions. I had some great company on my table; we considered how to make rented housing affordable and how to increase rental quality. I’d like to thank my table-mates.
The Housing benefit bill in the UK is £ 29 bn; borrowing from Labour’s 2015 manifesto, it must be possible to convert benefits to bricks. The ultimate strategy must be to increase the supply; to build more houses but this requires national legislation, not the least in terms of local government debt management; the OECD standard is that housing debt should not be part of the national debt because it’s paid for by rent, not tax. Examining what can be done at a more local level, firstly, London is an extreme case, and may require special solutions and powers. There is only one housing market but Cities require the ability to make rent controls. In London the Mayor of London should lobby for powers in the coming metropolitan devolution legislation or apply for private legislation. In terms of developing solutions within current local powers, we looked at the problem of land banking where private developers won’t develop on land they own because they’ll make more money doing it tomorrow. We suggested that a more aggressive use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers to release empty land to social developers would be an important local step forward, although in the words of Captain Rum, “Opinion be divided”, it remains unclear how many empty properties and land areas are actually vacant in Lewisham.
One of the first ideas suggested was to ensure that Lewisham Council operated “joined up” policy regime, to ensure that the Planning committees did not approve of properties that encouraged housing shortages, and inappropriate multi-occupancy usage.
The key insight was to recognise that a broad landlord licensing scheme was necessary, to supervise standards, and create the information platform on which enforcement & compliance can be built. The new laws create the opportunity to do something good and Newham’s precedent shows it can be done. A good system will allow the council to understand the nature and extent of abuse and establish compliance and enforcement priorities.
The council also needs to look at the basic and fundamental aims of its developers; preferring co-ops, the DLO and housing association trusts. Housing is too important for the profit maximisers.