The first time I ever went inside Wandsworth Town Hall, I was thrown out. I’d come to watch a committee decision on whether my school’s playground and football pitches should be sold off to developers in order to build market flats. We hadn’t heckled or been disruptive, but it became obvious that the foregone decision was going to look really bad (it was the summer of the Olympics), so the Tories voted to close the public gallery.
Last week, in that same committee room some ten years on, I got to announce a drastic change in direction for how our new Wandsworth Labour administration will govern on questions of land, public assets and housing in the borough I grew up in.
Thatcher’s favourite council.
For 44 years, the Conservatives maintained power in Wandsworth, regularly bucking the national trend. Known as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite council, it pioneered the now well-known neoliberal policies of outsourcing, privatisation and lean-and-mean service provision. Nowhere was this more acute than when it came to housing policy, which the council used to maintain its political fortunes and transform entire neighbourhoods. In fact, Wandsworth pioneered many of the policies that have created our current housing crisis.
It was Wandsworth council that launched the first right-to-buy scheme (in 1978, before it was national policy), refusing to replace the council properties sold. It led the way in selling vacant council homes to letting agencies rather than using them to house homeless families, and oversaw the privatisation of entire estates using ‘designated sales areas’. Under the Tories, the borough’s council housing stock decreased by at least 24,000 properties (these are just the ones we know about).
This was a hegemonic project, designed to transform the area demographically but also to divide up the remaining tenants between those who still rented off the council and those who owned their own homes. As the chair of the property sales committee in the mid-1980s, Cllr Peter Bingle was open about his plans: “My aim is to reduce the number of council properties in Wandsworth from 35,000 to 20,000, and to make Battersea a Conservative constituency.” As one former Labour councillor from the time put it to me: “They did what Shirley Porter did – they just didn’t get caught.”
In more recent times, a new approach was taken in which local government incentivised and subsidised by stealth the ambitions of multinational private developers, often purposefully ignoring their options to provide social rent or council housing. The starkest example of this is the new Nine Elms regeneration area, home to the infamous sky pool and the Northern Line extension and encapsulating the most extreme end of the post-2008 London housing market. It’s no surprise that former Wandsworth councillors like Bingle and Sir Edward Lister would go off and make fortunes advising developers on property deals with councils.
As a result, over the last decade, 12,697 of the 15,691 homes completed in the borough were for market housing (81%) and only 2,994 were ‘affordable’ (19%). Of the ‘affordable’ homes, 1,954 were for intermediate housing and 1,040 were for social/affordable rent (7%). The vast majority of the social/affordable rent homes were delivered as affordable rent rather than social rent. This was a political choice. Council officers were directed to negotiate for so-called ‘affordable’ homes that were 80% market rent or schemes like shared ownership. Private developers that were willing to provide social housing could instead cash-out.
Is it any wonder, then, that within that same decade, the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation in the borough rose year on year from a few hundred to just under 3,500 households? This is often poor quality accommodation in the private rented sector that comes at huge cost to the council and sees public money flowing into private hands. By the time we took over in May 2022, Wandsworth had become a national outlier when it came to proportionate increases in temporary accommodation use.
A radical alternative.
When Labour entered office in May, one of the starkest meetings we had was with the homelessness team. Prevention officers and caseworkers had between 80-100 cases each. The huge numbers of people approaching the council for accommodation (largely families on housing benefit priced out of the private rented sector) was crippling the department. It was explained to me that in 2013 – just as the crisis was taking off due to a QE driven asset boom mixed with benefit cuts and prevention was more important than ever – the department had been cut under austerity. One of the first things we did was hire 24 more prevention staff to deal with this human tragedy. We aim to reduce temporary accommodation use for the first time in a decade.
Wandsworth Tories had planned to build 1,000 homes on our last remaining pockets of council land. 442 of these would have been council rent and the rest market housing for sale and shared ownership. We are flipping all 1,000 to council rent. This is because we want public land to work for the public good, delivering public assets that support those most in need. This makes financial sense as it produces long-term rental income and it makes moral sense as it provides much-needed social housing for those in our overcrowding and homelessness queues. It will be financed through borrowing, and is one of the most ambitious council build, council rent infill programmes in London (if not the country).
As well as new-build council housing, we’ve applied for Sadiq Khan’s ‘right-to-buy-back’ programme, which gives grants to help London council’s buy back flats on their estates sold under right-to-buy. The previous administration refused to apply for what was ostensibly free money to help purchase council properties. We had a late start compared with other councils, but will purchase 50 homes before the scheme ends in March 2023.
The Wandsworth Tories were early adopters of flexible fixed term tenancies for social renters. This meant that new council tenants were given five-year tenancies and then evaluated before being allowed to re-sign. In reality, almost nobody was stopped from resigning, but it nonetheless left tenants feeling insecure and was bureaucratically cruel. We’re going back to traditional lifetime secure tenancies, giving people the security and stability to put down roots and make Wandsworth their home.
One of the things right-to-buy created was a large pool of leaseholders on council estates. Around half of these are landlords who rent their properties out, but many live in their homes and are valued and active figures in our community. When we invest to improve or repair our estates these leaseholders are charged, and depending on the work needed, they can face very high bills. There’s often an assumption that these residents are wealthy, when in fact many of them find these bills terrifying. Previously, they had ten months to pay them, but now all resident leaseholders in Wandsworth will now have four years (interest free) on bills over £3,000. This is one way we can help those already struggling with the cost of living.
It’s not just council tenants we want to protect. The private rented sector has become a hell-scape of exploitation and insecurity for so many in Wandsworth, as it is across London. Unlike other boroughs, the Conservatives refused to build a robust licensing regime for the private rented sector, leaving renters vulnerable and limiting our enforcement and regulatory powers. The road to a developed, self-sustaining and evidence-based licensing scheme starts now.
We’ve also ended the Tories’ regeneration of the Alton estate in Roehampton. This was a real estate driven scheme that would have taken 15-years and hundreds of millions of pounds to produce just 48 new social homes (out of 1,108). We are fully committed to investing in the Alton estate and will now be calling on both external experts and our officers to identify progressive options which we will then ballot on. We have no predetermined views about the way forward, and nothing, at this stage, is ruled in or out. In my lifetime, I’ve seen too many estate regenerations across our city end up displacing and pricing out residents. We hope to change that.
Taking back the town hall.
As with all policies, the challenge ahead will be the delivery. We’ve taken power during the worst economic situation the country has faced since the financial crash of 2008. Inflation and interest rate rises are devastating for our already squeezed public services. As a cabinet member for housing in a borough like Wandsworth, every day something new will land on my desk, often involving really difficult circumstances for those involved. And as campaigners like Kwajo Tweneboa have highlighted, in social housing things can go badly wrong, and I want us to own up when we make mistakes – and learn from them.
But just as the Wandsworth Conservatives didn’t let the economic or political consensus define them, neither should we. After years of fighting, organising and campaigning against a council that shaped the area I grew up in, being able to offer material improvements to people’s lives is the best redress for being thrown out of the town hall all those years ago.