Lambeth Council’s record on repairs

Former councillor, Jeremy Clyne, responding to the housing debate hosted by Cressingham Gardens in December 2014:

I heard about the Housing Debate on Cressingham Gardens last week and have been listening to the recording. One of the panel, Cllr Matthew Bennett, the Cabinet Member for Housing on Labour-run Lambeth, has only been on the council since 2010 and admitted that discussion touched on events well before his time.

And yet, when it suited him, he felt knowledgeable enough to spread a lot of disinformation about events well over a decade ago. He’s probably getting much of his information from his past and present boss, former council leader Steve Reed. Apparently keen to score political points he tried to pin the blame for the current lack of investment in the housing stock on the Lib Dem-led administration between 2002 and 2006.

Conveniently forgetting that Labour has run this borough for the past eight and a half years since 2006, and that for almost half that time Labour ran the country, he attacked the 2002-6 administration for not creating an arm’s length company to run the borough’s housing, which he said would have led to hundreds of millions being invested.

The truth is that up to 2006 there was a cross-party consensus in favour of keeping Lambeth housing in-house. Labour set up the Lambeth Housing Investment Commission which in its 2001 report came down firmly in favour of a policy of “positive retention”, rejecting the other options of PFI, large scale stock transfer or a borough-wide ALMO. The Commission was made up of council tenants and leaseholders under an independent chair. Its recommendations can be checked out via Google – for example see the Local Government Chronicle report (below).

When we came into power in 2002, the Lib Dems kept to this, and in line with the wishes of residents sought to improve the existing retained service. “Reframing” was meant to achieve this, but it had to contend with Steve Reed and the Labour Party opposition deliberately trying to undermine it. One of their councillors even wrote a piece in the Guardian about this disruption, and his party’s “rabble rousing”…/comment.guardiansocietysupplem…

Nearly as shockingly, almost the first thing Labour did when getting back into power in 2006 – apart from doubling Cabinet members’ pay – was to announce plans for an ALMO, something they had not said a word about in their manifesto.

From 2006 onwards housing was an increasingly disastrous area, with the number of empty homes rocketing and the proportion of non-decent homes soaring to half the stock.

It was national policy, under the Blair-Brown governments, that councils had to adopt an ALMO, PFI or stock transfer solution to receive funding – refusing what was known as the Third Option (direct investment into council housing) and forcing huge transfers of stock to housing associations. Matthew Bennett talked about the council being promised £250m to meet the borough’s needs but this was dependent on the ALMO, Lambeth Living, reaching the “two star” standard.

Lambeth’s ALMO never got any of the “promised” money because two stars were never reached. The Lambeth Housing Investment Commission had correctly foreseen this, judging that the council was “unlikely in the short term to achieve the necessary quality rating required by Government”.

What Labour politicians prefer to forget is that it is the current Tory-Lib Dem coalition government which has removed the blockages, releasing to Lambeth £100m, the biggest slice of backlog funding received by any local authority, and making available hundreds of millions more by reforming the housing finance system. (And by the way enabling councils to start building some social housing again after a virtual stop to council house building under the Labour Government).

That reform and the backlog grant is why Lambeth is finally getting round to dealing with the shocking disrepair in the council’s housing stock.

The story from Cllr Bennett was that the current government has cut the grant from £250m to £100m. He avoided mentioning that under the Labour government not a penny of this £250m was given to Lambeth, and the current government has changed the system to allow the council to raise hundreds of millions more on top of the £100m grant.

To say, as was said at the meeting, that the problem is lack of funding is only half the story. Steve Reed and Lib Peck managed to ensure many millions were spent on estates and blocks in their wards. Yet places like Cressingham Gardens – and the crumbling Leigham Court Estate in my ward, Streatham Hill – were neglected, and allowed to deteriorate. It’s not hard to see why – with the prospect of rebuilding Cressingham Gardens with lots of private high rise flats on the edge of Brockwell Park, never mind the impact on existing estate residents, or their feelings about the matter.

As for trust, after the way Labour disregarded the clear wish of tenants and leaseholders as expressed in the Housing Investment Commission, is there any reason to believe that the current consultation is anything more than a charade?

7 December, 2001
An independent commission, set up to investigate ways of boosting investment in council housing stock in Lambeth, has unanimously recommended to tenants that their homes stay with the council.

The Housing Investment Commission (HIC) is made up of more than 20 elected tenants and leaseholders living in Lambeth. The commission received evidence over 16 months and heard that Lambeth LBC’s 35,300 council homes may need up to£1bn to bring them all up to an acceptable state of repair and maintain them for the next 15 years.

Tom Franklin, leader of the council, welcomed the report.

‘It is a measure of how much our housing services have improved in recent years, that the commission considers continued council management of council homes to be the best possible option for tenants and leaseholders’, he said.

‘The tenants elected to the commission have done a great job in objectively assessing some highly complex financial options. We welcome the report and accept the need for radical changes to the way the housing stock is managed. The council will be responding in full to the report’s detailed recommendations, and within its timetable of three months.’

Lambeth began consulting council tenants in early 2000 when it set out the key issues facing its housing stock (it needs about£1bn spending on it over the next 15 years). It set up the Housing Investment Commission to look at ways of increasing investment and to ensure that tenants and leaseholders would be involved in deciding the future of their own homes.

The commission considered four main investment options. These were: the total transfer of the stock to housing associations, the bringing in of ‘arm’s length’ management companies, a private finance initiative or keeping the housing with the council. In its 40-page report, the commission considers the effect on tenants, rents and charges, the money that could be brought in for repairs, and the costs, risks and timescales associated with each option. Providing evidence are tenants, community leaders, housing managers, finance officers from the council, lawyers, surveyors, consultants and government bodies.

‘After considering all the evidence, the commission concluded that the only workable solution was for the council to keep control of the housing stock’, said Michael Bell, the HIC’s independent chair. ‘But ‘staying put’ does not mean ‘no change’. We propose a positive retention strategy.

‘Lambeth needs more money to repair and improve council homes. This can be achieved by careful and imaginative use of all current funding opportunities and by the government allowing councils to borrow and spend on housing. We believe positive retention is in the best interests of tenants. It affords them the maximum protection, security and rights, and probably the lowest level of rent increases. Staying with the council also means no new set up costs and with continued opportunities for improvement and tenant empowerment’.

An alternative option – the large-scale voluntary transfer of council homes – would lead to higher rents and may result in public space being sold off thought the commission. The cost of transfer would be high, potentially over£200 million, which would have to be found by the council, and success could not be guaranteed.

It also concluded that it would be too costly and complex to set up arm’s length companies to manage the housing stock and that they were unlikely to bring in the investment required.

And the option of a private finance initiative was considered to be the most likely to lead to increased rents and the least likely to have a positive impact on the borough’s housing need.

The HIC requires Lambeth Housing to institute a change in its culture from top to bottom, to lobby the government to relax the rules which restrict councils from borrowing to improve their housing and measure itself against other social landlords with a view to outperforming the best. Lambeth should separate the day-to-day landlord function from the strategic development one and create new and real consultation on all aspects of housing management, says the commission.

Lambeth LBC established the independent commission with the aim of ensuring that tenants and leaseholders would be involved in the assessment of the various options. The findings of the commission are not binding on the council, but Lambeth now has three months to respond to the challenge.

Jeremy Clyne
Liberal Democrat Councillor Streatham Hill 2002-2014
Deputy Executive Member for Housing 2002-2004
Leaseholders Champion 2004-2006
Vice-chair, Housing Scrutiny 2006-2010

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