To ballot or not to ballot

Originally posted at Inside Housing on February 7.

Tenants get a vote if their landlord wants to transfer the ownership of their homes, so why not when their homes are going to be knocked down around them?

I’ve long believed that tenant ballots should be compulsory under major regeneration proposals even though the idea is not as simple as some people make out and is not going to fix current problems on its own.

Why? London mayor Sadiq Khan says he will require ballots on proposals where demolition is involved and which have Greater London Authority funding.

He has changed his mind since draft guidance last year argued that surveys and meetings should be held as proposals evolve ‘so that a “real time” assessment of the acceptability of what is being proposed is enabled’.

The draft said ballots and votes ‘can risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people at different ways over many years into a simple “yes/no” decision at a single point in time’.

After a unanimous vote in favour of ballots by the London Assembly, the final version says that: ‘I want the good practice and principles in this guide to be applied on all estate regeneration schemes across London. Where demolition is involved, I intend to use my planning powers, and a new requirement for resident ballots where my funding is involved, to help ensure this is the case.’

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The horrors of temporary housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on November 8.

From ‘temporary’ homes that last for 19 years to families with young children living in the middle of an industrial estate, a Commons debate on Tuesday found MPs queuing up to relate horror stories from their constituencies.

Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh opened the debate about temporary accommodation with an eloquent and angry explanation of the situation facing 78,000 families and 120,000 children but she was joined by MPs from all parties in calling for urgent changes.

The stats about temporary accommodation are grimly familiar. Among them are a 66% increase in the number of children affected since 2010, 1,200 families with children housed in B&Bs beyond the six-week legal limit and a five-fold increase in families from London housed outside the capital since 2012.

All this has come at a cost of £3.5 bn over the last five years for accommodation that is stretching the definition of ‘temporary’ to breaking point.

Siobhan McDonagh said three quarters of families in temporary accommodation in London have been there for more than six months and one in 10 for more than five years. There are even cases in Camden and Harrow of families living in ‘temporary’ accommodation for 19 years.

A graphic illustration of that came from David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, later in the debate:

‘One family in my constituency have been living in temporary accommodation for 14 years. Another family have been there for 17 years. That family have seen their children grow up in temporary accommodation—the only home that the children have ever known, from their first day at primary school to their first day at secondary school. Next year, the 18th birthday of the eldest child will be celebrated in this so-called temporary accommodation.’

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The day Mrs Thatcher came for tea

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 3. 

If the Right to Buy has a birthplace it’s a terraced house at 39 Amersham Road in Harold Hill, near Romford in Essex.

True, the sale was the 12,000th rather than the first and 11 August, 1980 was not the actual birth date of the policy either.

However, both have come to symbolise the Right to Buy because this was the place and that was the day that Margaret Thatcher came for tea.

The former prime minister joined the Patterson family, who had bought their home for £8,315 after 18 years as tenants of the Greater London Council (GLC).

Two things came together to remind me of that photo opportunity this week: first, archive footage used in the film Dispossession (full review to follow soon); and second a good investigation by the local paper of hidden homelessness in the area.

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Finding new homes for Grenfell families

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 12.

How difficult should it be for Kensington and Chelsea to find new permanent homes for the families made homeless by the Grenfell Tower fire?

A month on from the disaster, new council leader Elizabeth Campbell promised on the Today programme this morning (listen from around 2:10:00) to build new council homes and buy existing ones.

So far 68 social rented homes have been reserved for the families at a new development in Kensington but they were always going to be affordable housing anyway, built under a Section 106 agreement and bought by the City of London Corporation.

Only 14 out of the 158 Grenfell families currently living in hotels have accepted offers of temporary accommodation as they wait for permanent homes.

Cllr Campbell, who is also the new cabinet member for housing and regeneration, gave a contrite but awkward interview in which she claimed (wrongly) that the Royal Borough would be the first in London to build new council homes and admitted (eventually) that she has never been inside one of the council’s tower blocks.

However, she did at least perform better than her predecessor as leader, Nick Paget-Brown, and another Tory councillor, Catherine Faulks, who made an embarrassing appearance on the same programme last week.

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Learning the lessons of Grenfell Tower

Originally published on June 15 as a column for Inside Housing.

Why? Why? Why? The questions come thick and fast.

Why did this happen? How did it happen? Who let it happen?

I can’t pretend to have the technical expertise to have the answers and it’s important not to leap to the wrong conclusions. So for the moment there can only be questions about Tuesday night’s horrific fire in London.

At least 12 people are known to have died as the fire swept through Grenfell Tower but given the number of people missing the final death toll looks like it will be far higher than that.

Even the immediate questions are endless. Why did the fire spread so quickly? Why were there no sprinklers or fire alarms? Should the advice to stay put be changed?

Did the refurbishment work or the cladding used make Grenfell Tower less safe? Why did the council and landlord not heed residents’ warnings about the fire risks?

Where will the surviving residents live now and how long will it take them to find permanent homes?

The questions keep coming but we need answers and soon about why the tragedy happened and how to stop it happening again.

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Questions of power

Originally posted on May 9 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The May elections have a common theme when it comes to housing: can the winners really do what they say?

From Sadiq Khan to Marvin Rees, from Nicola Sturgeon to Carwyn Jones and from council leaders all over England to the voters of St Ives, winning the elections last week was the easy bit. The hard work starts now.

I’ll start with the poll closest to me: the referendum in St Ives on a Neighbourhood Plan that will ban the building of new second homes that has brought national attention.

More than 80% of residents supported the plan last Thursday and it’s impossible not to sympathise. Around a quarter of the homes in St Ives are either second homes or holiday lets and the problem is even worse in other Cornish communities. That does not just price out locals it also means a lack of year-round residents that makes it hard to sustain vital services and infrastructure.

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What David Cameron’s tax returns say about property

Next time you read about ‘fat cats’ earning more than the prime minister here’s something to bear in mind: so does his house.

The summarised tax returns released by David Cameron this weekend show that he had a total taxable income of just over £200,000 in 2014/15. The first £141,000 of that were his earnings as prime minister: he has not taken a pay rise since 2010 and has also voluntarily waived a £20,000 prime ministerial expenses deduction since 2011.

Most of the Panama Papers coverage has concentrated on Cameron’s links to his father’s offshore fund and an inheritance gift from his mother. However, he is also the first prime minister to rent out his existing home while living tax-free in Downing Street. The accounts show that he had a net rental income of £47,000 from letting out his house in Notting Hill, an amount that notes to the accounts confirm is his 50 per cent share of the proceeds:


So the total rent (after expenses) received by the Camerons last year was £94,000 and in the first five years since he became prime minister they gained a total of £432,000 in rent.

However, that is not the total amount they will have ‘earned’ from their house as London house prices have also soared over the same period. The exact value of the Cameron house is hard to pin down, since they are reported to have spent £600,000 on renovations after buying it in 2006. Some reports put the value at £2 million in 2010, others £2.7 million.

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