Tower Hamlets needs a lot more homes. Its population is growing faster than anywhere else in the land, with newcomers and newborns bumping the numbers up by about 11,000 every year. it’s almost doubled in the past 30 to a good 290,000.
Executive Mayor John Biggs been particularly busy with housing policy, as he was keen to demonstrate to an audience of fellow politicians, housing professionals and the odd stray journalist in an East End community centre on Monday.
There are around 20,000 people on the council’s waiting list and a lot in overcrowded conditions. But the issue isn’t limited to volume. Housing isn’t about big numbers, it’s about people, Biggs said.
It was next to the once notorious but now award-winning Ocean estate in Stepney, whose total rebuilding is approaching completion after a process lasting close to 20 years. Biggs used to represent this area as a councillor.
He sees the Ocean’s transformation, begun under the auspices of Tony Blair, as the culmination of what a huge collective effort can achieve.
A year and a bit have passed since John Biggs became mayor of Tower Hamlets, and he’s been keeping busy.
He offered good news and bad. Delivering the good involved poking his predecessor Lutfur Rahman and former London Mayor Boris Johnson in the eye.
Mayor. Biggs feels both were too concerned with maximising output and too little with sensitivity to whether the new homes they gave the go-ahead to, especially on the Isle of Dogs, were suitable for those who needed them.
Also, densities had been too great for infrastructure to keep up with, Biggs believed: the school places, shops, leisure space, job and training opportunities, transport capacity and health care facilities essential to successful communities.
Those past failings, Biggs said, are being addressed. For one thing, he has displaced Rahman. For another, Sadiq Khan has replaced Johnson. Other problems remain acute.
There are over 2000 homeless Tower Hamlets households in temporary accommodation, around half of them outside the borough. But Biggs was able to proudly say that 238 families who’d been living for longer than the legal limit of six weeks in bed and breakfast places when he took office have now been rehoused: “We have shown that although these problems are hard, it’s not impossible to fix them, if you’ve got the will,” he said.
The bad news, argued the Labour man, was Conservative national policy. An affordability commission he set up had confirmed that “affordable rent” homes – officially a form of social housing, but with often far higher rents – brought in by the coalition, did not work for Tower Hamlets. He called the Housing and Planning Act, aspects of which even some Tories consider mad, “punitive” and bound to make addressing housing problems in his borough even harder.
Starter homes, costing up to £450,000 in London, would not be recognized round his way as affordable. The pay-to-stay proposals for social housing tenants on lower middle incomes – a paramedic and a nurse bringing in £45,000 on London starter salaries, for instance – would be hit for hundreds of pounds a year.
Unless the government’s policy is to intentionally price lower and middle income families out of the East End, something is very wrong, Biggs concluded.
There are glimmers of hope that new housing minister Gavin Barwell, a London MP, has recognised that national policy needs adjustment and that London’s circumstances require flexibility to be built in the new Act’s regulations, when they are at last produced.
Khan’s forthcoming supplementary planning guidance, now expected next month, his London Living Rent and other policies will, Biggs hopes, be helpful too.
Biggs spoke lyrically about the East End, something he does often and well: “The East End’s a conundrum of a place.
You might see it as being full of challenge and poverty.
But when you actually look at the lives of people who come here, you see it is a place of magical potential where they can achieve their dreams. And we want that to happen more often.
The mayor and colleagues are now drawing up a new housing strategy with a view to meeting commitments that include building over 1,000 new council homes at social rents and over 2,000 social and other genuinely affordable rented homes in partnership with commercial developers and housing associations, tackling overcrowding and securing a fairer deal for private renters.