Being on the Independent Commission for the Future of Council Housing in Southwark was one of the most interesting and challenging things I have ever done. The Commission was asked by the London Borough of Southwark to explore options for its council housing for the next 30 years. It was brilliantly chaired by Jan Luba QC and it consisted of leading experts in housing from academia, government, finance, the voluntary sector and business (and me).
The occasion for such a report was partly that local authorities are being given much more independence in how they manage their housing stock. The main work of the report was carried out to a very high standard by the Smith Institute, led by Paul Hackett. It was published in October 2012.
Southwark still has the largest council housing stock of any London authority, with 39,000 flats and houses on council tenancies; it is also the freeholder for about 17,000 leaseholders, who occupy flats that have been bought on the Right to Buy. It owns outright about 40% of the land in the Borough. The great majority of the council tenancies are on estates, including the cheaply-built concrete estates of the 1960s and 70s; they present varying but sometimes huge problems of structural disrepair. We were severe in the report about Southwark’s past record of failure to invest in long term maintenance and repair. We did not see our role as making an overall recommendation; instead we made many specific recommendations for improvements in how to manage the stock and offered three options for the next 30 years; a slow decline in stock, a more rapid reduction, and investment in the stock so as to maintain its numbers by means of a substantial and sustained refurbishment and building programme. We made it clear that the third option would be the hardest and would demand the greatest determination to change existing processes, but we were able to say that the new freedom to borrow and manage did make it a viable option.
I am personally very pleased that Southwark, which is my own council, has made the decision in its cabinet meeting on 16/07/13, following extensive consultation with its tenants and residents, to go for the third option. It has committed itself to building 10,000 new council houses and flats over the next 30 years. Not only have they chosen the hopeful option, but in the was that they have done it and in what they are saying they seem to have made central to their plans our most important and re-iterated recommendation – that the necessary improvement in service and management can only be achieved with a dramatic increase in involvement of and communication with residents. The Leader of the Council, Peter John, said “My own vision for housing in Southwark in 30 years time is of a place where you will not know whether you are visiting an estate in private or council ownership; where the quality of our council homes rivals or exceeds those produced for private sale, and where those properties are managed and maintained either by their residents, or the council, or by a combination of both – but always with the agreement and support of their residents.”
The whole country is suffering from a severe shortage of housing. In inner London it is barely possible for ordinary people to afford to live anywhere other than in social housing. Southwark has chosen to lead what (I dream) may be a new wave of social housing built by local authorities and helping those who need it to find somewhere to live.