Labour offers a fairer deal to those renting their homes privately

To Let signLabour’s new proposals to support the nine million people who rent their homes from private landlords would make a real difference in Blackheath and Westcombe Park – where the number of private renters has increased by 50% in the last decade.

With home ownership increasingly out of reach, more and more people now call the private rented sector home and the Tory-led coalition is doing nothing to help make the sector safer, fairer and more affordable.

Labour’s plans, unveiled by Ed Miliband earlier this month, include three-year tenancies (with a six-month probation period), the banning of ‘letting fees’ for tenants, and a cap on rent increases.

The reaction of Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps – who mocked Labour’s plans as “Venezuelan-style rent controls” – show just how out of touch the Conservatives have become. The Tories have caused a housing crisis in London since 2010:  homebuilding is at its lowest level since 1924, London rents are rising at 10% a year, Home ownership levels are falling and the average age of a first-time buyer is, shockingly, 38. More than 55,000 Londoners have been hit by the “Bedroom Tax” and face being forced out of their homes, and Boris Johnson is missing his own targets for building new affordable homes. While Greenwich’s Labour council is doing all it can to put pressure on private developers, this is hampered by cuts in grants for affordable housing: since the coalition started the number of affordable new homes built in Greenwich has plummetted from 1,340 in 2010-11 to 490 in 2011-12 and just 270 in 2012-13.

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New pools and library at Greenwich Square on schedule to open in spring 2015

Greenwich Square - CGI

Along with other councillors I visited the development site at the bottom of Vanbrugh Hill – Greenwich Square – last week to see the new swimming pools and library being built there along with a new health centre, shops and 645 new homes.

Like many developments that were conceived before the financial crash – plans were first drawn up for the site in 2006 and submitted to the council in 2007 – this one has been a long time coming. The development was given planning consent in 2008 but stalled when the developer First Base walked away in 2010, and after the incoming Government cut funds for affordable housing on the site it was difficult to make the development viable. But the plans were then modified, a new development consortium (Hadley Mace) was brought in in 2012 and work finally started on site later that year.Greenwich Square cgi

The good news is that the scheme has been kept alive with only minor changes to Make Architects‘ original plans, and 150 of the new homes will be available to local people at genuinely affordable rents (not Boris Johnson’s definition of “affordable” – 80% of market rents). Make are a great architectural practice founded in 2004 by Ken Shuttleworth, who had formerly been a partner at Norman Foster’s firm, and I am glad their design has not been dumbed down.

Local people could be forgiven for having forgotten the promise of the Greenwich Centre – a new library and leisure centre on the site, to replace East Greenwich Library and the Arches: the scheme has not been well publicised beyond its immediate neighbours so far.

New swimming pool at Greenwich SquareBut work is now progressing rapidly and the new public building going up on the corner of Vanbrugh hill and Woolwich Road, containing the library, leisure centre and a council “contact centre” alongside a new public square, has been topped out. While there is some affection for the Arches and East Greenwich Library, I hope the new building can prove that public services can be as well-built in the twenty-first century as in the twentieth, and be easier to maintain and adapt to future demands.

Elsewhere on the site the first 36 housing units – affordable homes to rent through L&Q housing association – are almost completed and are being handed over in April. A small Sainsbury’s on the site will open in July. A gym, dance studio, 25-metre Fitness poll, a 20-metre learning pool, creche and an 820 square metre library – three times bigger than the current East Greenwich Library – should be handed over to the council in November 2014 and open by the end of March 2015. A new NHS health centre, which will replace the Vanbrugh Health centre operating at the southern end of the site, will also open upstairs from the library next spring, and all the housing on the site should be completed by 2018.

Unlike many PFI developments, the council will have control of these buildings through a 999 year lease, and a seat on the management company that will own the freehold of the site.

Swimming pools under construction at Greenwich Square

The council now needs to seek appropriate new uses for the (locally listed) Arches building and the East Greenwich library building (which is statutorily listed), which will be replaced in spring 2015 by these new facilities. I would be keen to hear local people’s thoughts about how they should find a sustainable future (Blackheath Library on Old Dover Road, which was refurbished and had its opening hours extended in 2010, won’t be affected).

Deep within the site we were shown the two new pools under construction – the larger one is under a wooden hoarding but the smaller children’s pool is beginning to look like somewhere you could swim in (the steps into it are already in place). It is already just possible to imagine what the pools will look like when they are open (compare the computer-generated image above with the photo of the same part of site under construction below). The new library will be upstairs, in a prominent position right on the crossroads of Vanbrugh Hill and Woolwich Road. Read more of this post

All is forgiven, planners: you are now needed more than ever

Huntsman mapped

Good news from the Planning Inspectorate last week,  who turned down a proposal for 131 new homes on the Huntsman site, a disused playing field just off the Cator Estate.

Although everyone accepts the land will end up being developed as housing (its designation as Metropolitan Open Land was lifted some years ago as part of a land-swap to enable the Ferrier estate to be redeveloped as Kidbrooke Village), the proposed development was wrong in many respects. Above all it would have turned its back on the neighbouring Kidbrooke Vision development it was supposed to be part of. As this map shows, all the traffic would have gone onto the Cator Estate’s narrow (and privately-owned) roads to the west, via a dangerous new entry junction on the corner of Manor Way and Brooklands Park.

It is pleasing that for once a planning inspector has agreed with the council and local residents, and refused the scheme on traffic grounds. It was clear at the public enquiry earlier this year that residents across Blackheath, who organised an effective campaign called No to the Huntsman, felt that this was the wrong scheme both for them, and the borough as whole: although the site is about a half-mile south of Blackheath Westcombe ward (whose southern boundary is Blackheath Park) I was contacted by many concerned residents living north of Blackheath Park as well as south. The Planning Inspectorate’s judgement, issued on February 26th, can be read herePhotos July 2008 029

The Huntsman is not the only large planning application causing concern locally. In Kidbrooke Village itself, Berkeley Homes are beginning to consult on a proposal for a 30-storey tower by Kidbrooke station, with a public exhibition being held later this week. The new proposal is much higher than the building heights that Berkeley already have outline permission for. As most of the new development in Kidbrooke Village has so far been top-quality, let’s hope it won’t be ruined now: see here for a discussion on Skyscraper city, an online discussion forum about tall buildings, and here for SE9 magazine’s coverage (it’s on page 18).  Read more of this post

Coalition Consequences: Benefits Cap hits those in private rented accommodation hardest

coalition consequences logoI have posted before about the impact of the Coalition’s welfare polices in Greenwich, and Blackheath Westcombe ward in particular, and about the cuts in housing benefit which could force many people – including families with children – to have to move out of areas like Blackheath and Westcombe Park.

Since the “Benefits cap” came into force (it is being phased in between 12th August and September 30th 2013), we are beginning to see what the real impact is on families in the borough.

In a nutshell, the government’s new policy is that total benefits cannot now exceed:

  • £500 a week for couples (with or without children living with them)

  • £500 a week for single parents whose children live with them

  • £350 a week for single adults who don’t have children, or whose children don’t live with themold dover road

According to figures from the Royal Borough of Greenwich, about 340 families in the borough are affected by the Benefits Cap. Of these, the council is already advising 110 families – of which 68 (well over half) are in private rented accommodation, not council or housing association homes. Read more of this post

What the 2011 Census belatedly tells us: home ownership levels down since 2001, private renting up by 50%

Photos July 2008 029Better late than never: ward-level data from the March 2011 census has finally been released in, er, 2013 (it takes two years for the Office of National Statistics to crunch all the data).

What does the census data tell us about how society has changed since the previous census in 2001? The big news in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, like so many other parts of London, is the steep growth in private renting in the last ten years: up from 16.8% of households in 2001 to 24.5% in 2011.

One in four households in Blackheath Westcombe ward is now rented from a private landlord: a decade ago it was just one in six. Read more of this post

Coalition Consequences: forcing children to move home isn’t fair – and won’t save a penny of public money

The penny has finally dropped for the Liberal Democrats: the Government’s changes to welfare benefits will do little or nothing to reduce public spending overall, will unfairly demonise the poor and jobless, and will prompt a mass exodus of poorer people from many parts of London to poorer districts – and in many cases out of the capital entirely.

So says former children’s Minister Sarah Teather (the Lib Dem MP for Brent Central)  in an interview in today’s Observer, belatedly echoing concerns that many community organisations, trade unions and housing and family charities – and the Labour Party – have been raising for many months. Read more of this post

Don’t believe what you read about millionaires in Council Houses

CIMG1500Superb piece on the Red Brick blog last week about the latest absurdities of Tory Housing policies.

The proposal, trailed in the Guardian earlier this month, to cap “rent subsidy” at a household income of £60,000, (which would mean that a couple on £30,000 each could see their rent rise by about £70 a week) is seriously flawed for three reasons.

Firstly, it would disincentivise work, and discourage anyone in social housing from getting on in life.

Household income of £60,000 may seem like quite a lot (it is certainly more than my household earns in a year), and may seem like a sensible threshold for rent subsidies to be cut off at. However, a family with Mum and Dad both working on average London earnings of about £25,000 each would only need one grown-up child living at home and earning £10,000 a year (working part-time while studying, for example) to hit that threshold. Such families are not, by any stretch of the imagination, rich. But under the Tories plan they would either have to take a pay cut, move their earnings into the black market – or abandon their council home if they can no longer pay the higher rent. Read more of this post