We’re facing an absolute crisis in our borough when it comes to housing and the situation is getting worse by the day.
I can’t let my emotions show at my weekly advice surgeries but inwardly I am so often moved to tears by the tragic stories that I hear. Sometimes we forget just how crucially important a roof over your head is. If you’re ill you can go home until you feel better, if you lose your job you can go home and start applying for any vacancies, if your children are suffering at school they can come home to a place of safety and if they are having trouble with their class work they can study at home until they catch up.
If you don’t have a home then none of these are possible and the rapid descent to the streets that so often arises from losing a home is as horrific as it is terrifying.
There is still a belief that councils have a housing duty and are legally responsible for housing people in need. This has not been the case for many years. Originally councils didn’t have housing departments – they had social services sections which included housing in their remit.
Like most boroughs Ealing has not had a Director of Housing or a Housing Committee for a long time and although there are still housing officers they are increasingly concerned with preventing homelessness, regeneration schemes like that on Rectory Park and Copley Close, and the management of temporary and emergency housing.
The end of council housing came about as a result of the “right to buy” legislation which saw the very best of our council housing stock being sold off at a large discount and councils prevented from using the capital receipts to build new stock. Estates like the Cuckoo and the Racecourse have seen nearly all their town houses sold and it is hard to accept that 41% of all the council properties sold in Ealing are now leased back to the council to provide temporary accommodation at vastly higher rents than originally applied.
What this means is that presumably someone who bought their council tenancy saw the asset accrue so much potential income that they could buy a new property and let the former while using the rental income from their former home to pay the mortgage on the second. They would, of course, end up with two homes while over fifteen thousand people in Ealing don’t even have one.
This might not actually matter much if people who could start off their adult life in a council home could now afford to buy a private property.
The day is long gone when I could buy my first home in Hanwell with a mortgage based on the fact that the house cost 2.5 times our joint family income. As a nurse and a hospital porter earning £4,000 pa between them in the late 70s we could buy a terraced house for £12,000 on the basis of £2,000 savings and a mortgage on the balance. When we had saved enough to move to a larger Hanwell home and start a family the house was sold for £90,000 and it is now worth a sum that is scarcely believable.
We are now in the situation where it is all but impossible for any first time buyer to afford anything other than the smallest studio flat unless they have really supportive parents or come into one of the “key worker” categories that some supportive Housing Associations (such as Catalyst or A2 Dominion) apply to police officers, teachers and some NHS staff.
Here in West London we are caught in a triple trap. The population may be decreasing in other parts of the UK but it is booming in London and increased demand quickly sops up supply while forcing up the purchase prices.
The sheer lack of available land in London means that more and more properties are being shoe-horned into tine spaces at the end of terraces or in what were once good sized gardens. Where a huge brown field site – such as the old gasworks area in Southall – is zoned for housing there are massive problems of infrastructure and it is far harder to supply community needs, such as health and education, in London than it would be in a new town in the still vast unpopulated acres of England.
Finally the ill thought out and already destructive government “Help to Buy” policy is making matters even worse in London. This week Nigel Wilson, CEO of Legal and General, said that the scheme “risked stoking a price bubble that would put homes out of the reach of all but the most affluent”.
Perversely the Government are even ramping up the sales of council tenancies by offering ever bigger discounts. They justify this melting of the available stock by saying that – finally – capital receipts can be spent of new build. Only the slowest of slow learners will have failed to grasp that if you discount a property so much then the amount available for new build will fall far below construction costs.
The last government spent huge sums on the Decent Homes programme which sought to bring properties up to a decent standard and you can see the consequences of this on Medlar Farm and Radcliffe Way where the estates were all but rebuilt with new windows, roofs, entry systems and internal improvements that were long, long overdue.
Bricks and mortar are obviously important but it is flesh and blood that feels the real need and it is here that Ealing Council have performed what most outside observers consider to be an absolute miracle.
Led by Housing and Regeneration Portfolio Holder Cllr. Hitesh Tailor the council is actually managing to build new council homes and regenerate estates with a mix of developments. The Estate Improvement Programme has already delivered 680 new homes that include 424 for social rent, 163 for low cost home ownership and 93 sales.
The Copley Close redevelopment will actually see 200 new build homes and although developing small sites is incredibly hard and time consuming there are between 150-200 new homes in this pipeline and working with the GLA 74 affordably units over eight sites are planned. While this is going on the Council is also tackling wider issues such as youth homelessness, move on accommodation, worklessness, accommodation for people with disabilities and rough sleepers.
Is it possible to build your way out of the housing crisis? Probably not in London but even though you are not entitled to even apply for council accommodation unless you have lived in the borough for some years prior to your application there will be a huge pressure on London as the most wealthy part of the UK and a place where there is the lowest unemployment.
The Liberal Democrats had a policy at the last election that would have physically prevented people moving to areas like London and this was widely and rightly derided as a proposal to put road blocks on the M1.
The Conservatives see this as a market forces issue and have introduced the horror of the bedroom tax which leads to no new properties, a huge amount of misery sand the glaring inconsistency that the largest number of people “under occupying” their council homes are single pensioners who are – quite rightly – excluded from the Bedroom Tax.
Labour believes that it is the duty of the state to do all that it can to accommodate its citizens – whether through making homes fit to occupy, building new properties and providing financial support and fiscal incentives for home purchase or rental. In Ealing we can point to South Acton, Green Man Lane, Copley Close and Rectory Park as examples of imaginative thinking and a real determination to address the issue of homelessness which is set to blight a generation.
It is salutary to note that in 2008/09 the majority of people accepted by Ealing as homeless (44.91%) where those whose parents, friends or other relatives were no longer willing or able to accommodate them.
In 2012/13 51.23% of acceptances were to people who had suffered the loss of rented or tied accommodation due to the termination of an assured tenancy. Oh – and before anyone makes the usual comment could I point out that asylum support counted for 6.04% of acceptances in 2008/09 and this has fallen year on year to 0.54% in 2012/13.
We’ve got elections coming up in Ealing and when a canvasser knocks at your door or rings you up I’d suggest that you ask them what their party is doing to challenge the scourge of homelessness in our affluent borough of Ealing. I’d never dream of telling you how to vote but hope that you will accept that this issue is one that transcends party dogma and is as important as the health service.
Today in 2014 there are people sleeping in cars and “sofa surfing”. I meet children in my surgeries who have attended six different primary schools as they are moved from one temporary home to another.
We just can’t go on like this.