General Secretary, Wells Way Triangle Residents Association

E mail:

Southwark Housing Commission

Somerset House

South Wing


London WC2R 1LA

14th June 2012

Dear Commissioners

Submission of evidence to the Independent Commission on the Future of council Housing in Southwark

I am writing to you as General Secretary of the Wells Way Triangle Residents Association. Following a survey of our residents views looking into the very important issues being addressed by the Commission we received only a small number of formal responses to our survey, from only two residents, so I am writing to represent my own views, those of the respondees and views that have been raised in discussions about the Commissions work at meetings of our Association.

Because of the low response rate to the survey I cannot claim to be representing a collective view of all association members. However at our TRA committee meeting on the 12th June committee members endorsed this response and the views expressed below as the formal submission from the Wells Way Triangle TRA.

I have tried below to make clear those views which are my own as distinct from views which have been expressed widely or by other individuals within the Association, either through the survey or during discussions. My thinking about this important issue has also been influenced by my participation in the public meetings set up by the Commission, for which I am grateful.

Our TRA comprises a majority of owner occupiers but with members also living in Housing Association properties, council properties, shared ownership accommodation and some privately renting. Although much the communications from the Commission were primarily targeted at council tenants and leaseholders, Jan Luba QC made clear at the public meetings that this is in which all Southwark residents should take an interest and that the Commission was keen to hear views from a wide range of Southwark residents from all walks of life. I hope that some of our TRA residents will also have decided to submit evidence directly to the Commission, as they were actively encouraged to do by our association.

The headings used below were derived from the questions contained within the literature sent to me by the Commission.

How should Southwark be tackling the shortage of social housing in the borough?

The Commissions own letters acknowledge “a growing demand for more affordable homes” within Southwark. This demand needs to be met both through more flexible allocations of available housing and construction of new properties for low income people.

At the public meetings held by the Commission many council tenants commented that they were actually over housed but felt that the process of downsizing is overly bureaucratic. One elderly tenant was living on her own in a three bedroom property and had approached the council asking to be moved to a smaller, ground floor, flat. The council took two years to respond to her letter and then offered her only a shorthold tenancy on a ground floor flat which she, unsurprisingly, rejected.

There is clearly no need for the ability to move between properties as life circumstances change to undermine security of tenure. With increasing pressure on resources the council should be able to commit to providing someone with a roof over their head while being able to move tenants to accommodation that meets their needs as their circumstances change. Tenants should also accept that they won’t necessarily be able to retain the right to a specific property for their whole lives, especially if this property larger than required to meet their needs.

In my own view social housing contracts for the next 30 to 50 years should recognise the duty of the council to house low income people within the community in which they work and have friends and family while also recognising a duty on the part of tenants to be flexible as to the size of property in which they are housed over their lifetime. Tenants should expect to be moved to different properties as their family size grows and shrinks to enable the most efficient use of available social housing.

Making the best use of available resources will not eliminate the chronic need for considerable building of new homes for people on low-income. One survey respondent urged that “developers should be forced to use their land, instead of fencing it in for years” and suggested that planning regulations could be tightened up to prevent brownfield sites from lying dormant when they could be used for helping with the housing crisis. Residents spoken to were also keen on the practise of ensuring that each new build undertaken by private contractors contains a quota of social housing.

Many people that I have spoken to about the Commission’s work (TRA residents, council tenants and others) feel that the “right to buy” has done considerable damage to the provision of council housing in Southwark and represents a huge transfer of equity from public ownership into the hands of the already-better-off individuals living on Southwark’s estates. This has undermined both provision and flexible use of housing stock over the long term. Having future housing owned and managed by a Registered Social Landlord, perhaps under contract to provide housing at an agreed low cost, could provide an important protection against this highly corrosive central Government policy.

Survey respondents also expressed some support for means testing of tenants to ensure that very wealthy people were not being housed at the expense of the poor.

How should we be allocating properties to those wanting or needing social housing?

This was one of the most passionately debated questions put by the Commission. Many residents surveyed or spoken to in TRA meeting, or at the Commission’s public meetings expressed a view that, unless you have health problems or are an unemployed couple/single parent with children, you cannot get a council house under any circumstances.

I have also heard a number of comments expressing anger at recent arrivals to Southwark and the long-term unemployed “jumping the housing list”. I have no systematic way of judging the fairness with which council housing is currently allocated but underlying these grievances is a resentment that low income working people are not considered needy enough to qualify for social housing, especially if they are single. Instead the needs of the “most vulnerable” are perceived to have become paramount in allocations of housing, regardless of other considerations, such as having roots in the area or the needs of the community.

I also spoke to one low-waged resident within our own TRA who is living with a partner and child in a one bedroom flat of which she part owns 25%. As a “partial home owner” the council refused to consider her for housing at all, in spite of her overcrowded living conditions and the fact that the expense of paying a mortgage and rent on the remaining 75% of the property had left her in rent poverty.

This issue has been further aggravated by the expense of privately renting property in Southwark (or elsewhere in London). Definitions of rent-poverty vary but one such definition, used by the TUC amongst others, is that no one should have to spend more than 50% of their take-home-pay on rent and council tax combined. At the public meetings held by the Commission many of us, myself included, knew people who are paying well over 50% of take home pay on rent and council tax, often for poor quality properties. This seems to be especially true for young people.

The future of Council Housing in Southwark must, therefore, recognise the needs of low-income working people and those who are underhoused or in rent poverty as well as meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. This issue has far reaching impacts. People on low income have only limited income to spend on travel and currently a zone 1- 4 monthly travelcard costs over £160 so is prohibitively expensive for those in low paid work.

A housing strategy that does not meet the needs of low-income workers is, therefore, likely to undermine the economy of the borough as high street businesses, new start ups and private enterprise will not be able to recruit committed people who are able to work at a low wage. Instead they will risk reliance on transient labour, undermining the growth of local enterprises in the long term.

Essential services will also suffer. Southwark council has committed to paying staff and contractors a minimum wage of £8.30 from 2014. This works out as a salary of about £15,000 per annum for a 35 hour week. After tax and National Insurance this gives a take-home salary of about £1034 per month. With many flat shares in the private rented sector costing over £500 per room per month (much more for smaller flats) and with council tax, food and fuel bills being payable on top of this it’s obvious that anyone wanting to live and work in Southwark at this minimum wage will be facing a life of hardship if they are expected to house themselves in the private rented sector. If Southwark wants to be able to provide essential services (such as street cleaning, waste disposal, healthcare and infrastructure maintenance) to all of its residents then the council needs to recognise the housing needs of low-income workers as well as vulnerable people.

If staff for essential public services, like health and social care, are not able to live and work in the borough it is the most vulnerable in society who will suffer most as these services will remain understaffed or staffed by a transient workforce who have little incentive to look out for the long term needs of the people that they serve. A housing policy focussing only on housing only the most vulnerable is, therefore, destined to fail in meeting the wider needs of this group over the long term.

The risks posed to tenants by a housing policy focussed only on “meeting the greatest need” was also mentioned in TRA meetings and at the Commission’s own public meetings. Such a policy risks placing very large numbers of very vulnerable people in close proximity to each other without the accompanying influence, and potential support, of non-needy neighbours. Many residents (public, private and owner occupiers) have complained about the prevalence of anti-social behaviour (such as crime and loud music) on some of our estates. The problem of car theft and joy-riding is also something that I have personally witnessed on numerous occasions over the years.

Although these actions are, of course, only perpetrated by a minority of residents tackling these behaviours requires that tenants are able to engage the appropriate authorities, create a sense of community and establish clear norms around reasonable behaviour. Very high numbers of very vulnerable people can make it much harder to build such a sense of community. It can also undermine a sense of certainty that your neighbours will support you in taking action against problem tenants, undermining social cohesion and quality of life for all residents.

If Southwark wants to have a vibrant and safe community into the future we must recognise the need for a mixture of tenants on our estates and include low paid working people within this mix even if this means that some vulnerable people will have to remain in Temporary Accommodation for longer or be housed further afield.

Past housing policies have, in my view unfairly, tried to bracket some low paid staff into the category of “key workers” for housing purposes. This is a poor strategy as it fails to recognise the contribution of many low paid private sector workers to the community. To my knowledge no “key workers” scheme has ever recognised shop workers or staff in residential care homes as key workers, even though without them the functioning of the community would be grossly undermined. These schemes have also, on occasion, classified the already-better-off as “key workers” (including London Underground staff) and housed them ahead of much poorer working people. Key worker schemes should therefore not form part of allocations policies for the future of council housing.

Where should new council properties be built and how should new buildings be designed?

Everyone recognises that more social housing is needed. However there is great concern that the need for new council housing will become a charter for turning over green spaces and building high rise blocks all over the south of the borough (there are already height restrictions for new buildings in Dulwhich).

Everyone spoken to or approached is keen to ensure that the quantity of new homes must be properly balanced against the quality of life for all residents of the borough. In particular there were concerns that new social housing should not extend above five storeys and that no existing public green spaces should be turned over for new housing.

Many residents are also concerned about building new council homes close to, or overlooking, public parks. There was particular concern from our own TRA that nearby Burgess Park could end up being surrounded by tower blocks. Residents (whether council, private renters or owner occupiers) were opposed to this and so would urge the council to site any new high-rise properties in already-built up areas. The reason for this is that our parks are the lungs of a densely populated urban setting and an oasis of green space. Having them overshadowed by high rise estates significantly undermines residents enjoyment of them. This is especially important for tenants living in high-rise blocks, with no easy access to the street or open spaces, who need to be able to escape out into the open properly and feel that they are not overshadowed constantly by the blocks in which they live.

TRA residents pointed out that there are several large pieces of land (including the land along Southampton Way) that have been left standing empty for years which could be used for the construction of new social housing, which would bring multiple benefits to the community, removing derelict and dangerous half demolished structures as well as providing new housing.

Residents have also highlighted some of the examples of well designed social housing in the borough as a good template for future social housing design, including the Peabody homes on Southampton Way and the brick build social housing along the Peckham High Road.

Other ideas included building low-rise homes on top of large retail units. The Old Kent Road Tescos was cited as an example of one such retail unit that could be replaced by a mixed retail unit with low-rise domestic properties atop.

Concerns that new buildings are environmentally friendly were also paramount with suggestions that new builds should incorporate the highest standards of insulation, energy efficiency and low carbon technology. High environmental standards represent an “invest to save” approach to building new homes, helping to keep the maintenance costs and tenant’s fuel bills down. Good quality building also ensures that these buildings remain useable for potentially hundreds of years, rather than just a few decades, saving millions of pounds for future generations as well as benefiting the planet.

How should social housing be funded in the future? How much should tenants pay in rent?

One excellent idea put forward at one of the public meetings involved charging all tenants a percentage of their gross income in rent (e.g. 25%) with a minimum floor rent set at a percentage of the Local Housing Allowance rate for the property size (as used assess private sector rents for benefits purposes). For low earners, or those on benefits the minimum floor rent should always be meetable through Housing Benefit (or Universal Credit from 2013).

This ‘percentage of salary’ approach to rent would help to ensure that rents are affordable for low income people and realistic for middle earners, while incentivising those on higher incomes to consider moving out of social housing and into private home ownership, as social housing begins to represent poor value for money to them in absolute terms.

Amongst TRA survey respondents there was support for shared ownership schemes if this would help to fund the construction of new homes. However there was also concern that there should be flexibility for tenants participating in such schemes to allow them to trade their equity between properties, so that they can apply to be re-housed if their family grows. The important point here is that those participating in shared ownership schemes should not be at a disadvantage, in flexibility terms, to council tenants with no stake in their property.

The question of using Registered Social Landlords to build and run future housing in Southwark split opinion. Clearly there will be a need to generate private investment in social housing, which can be leveraged by RSLs. However some tenants expressed concern about the security of tenure offered by RSLs.

My own view is that the needs of tenants clearly have to be balanced against the needs of council tax payers and the needs of those who will require housing in the future. As long as RSLs can be contracted into keeping rents genuinely affordable the greater flexibility of tenure, and potential for private investment from RSLs offers considerable advantages over traditional council funded social housing and so ought to be looked into closely. Such an arrangement could also help to prevent social housing from being sold off under the right to buy scheme.

How do you think the Council can best invest in refurbishing and improving council homes?

This question received very little feedback, though there was much consignation about some of the contractors employed by Southwark Council to date. They were perceived as overpriced and underperforming. There was also much criticism of the current approach of clearing out whole estates in order to demolish and re-build them. If an estate is structurally sound the emphasis should be on refurbishment and retrofitting for improved energy efficiency and liveability. Demolition should be a last resort for estates that are, genuinely, structurally unsound.

Do you have views about how social housing ought to be managed in the future?

Maintenance and the provision of services to estates is a huge endeavour and one that can develop considerable opportunities for local businesses and local people, including young people and those currently unemployed.

It is, therefore, a great shame that the Council has frequently chosen to use large national, or even multinational, building maintenance contractors with centralised call centres, call of contracts and labour supplied from outside the borough over local people with such a clear vested interest in the proper maintenance and quality of life on the estates.

Local estates managers should be re-employed on the estates with an office open to all residents during office hours, though they should also be contactable by e mail and over the phone. Residents should know their estates managers by name. As well as understanding building maintenance the estates managers should be socially skilled, service orientated, people – good at understanding residents problems and requirements – and treating residents as people, rather than as a “job number”. They should be answerable to TRAs, rent paying tenants and leaseholders and the council for delivering a quality service at a reasonable cost.

Estates managers will recognise the need to take account of the impact of their work on those living near estates, as well as those living on the estates as social housing estates are, after all, part of a wider shared public environment. As such they will ensure that other services, like refuse collection, are properly engaged and that problems such as fly tipping and graffiti are tackled. No centralised estates management arrangement can achieve this because they do not have the all important continuous presence on the ground.

Guinness RSL, and some of the other, more progressive, social landlords have recently started forming tenants companies to manage and maintain estates. The scheme works by contracting an established building firm with a strong local presence to undertake maintenance work for a five year period. Their contract specifies that, during this time, they will take on and oversee a fixed number of apprenticeships. These apprenticeship schemes give priority to young unemployed people from the estates who are able to develop much needed skills in the building and manual trades and then qualify as skilled builders, electricians, plumbers or carpenters. This approach should be pursued in the future for Southwark’s council estates.

And finallyEdit

On behalf of our own TRA I would like to extend our thanks to Southwark Council and the Commission for inviting us to contribute to their thinking about the future of Council Housing in Southwark. I hope that the views expressed within this letter will be taken into account.

Yours Faithfully

Richard Llewellyn-Davies

General Secretary

Wells Way Traingle Residents Association