28 January 2019

Are Labour councils delivering on housing? A response to Harry Phibbs

By Diarmaid Ward and Asima Shaikh

Harry Phibbs’ article last week, Labour should practise want it preaches on housing, made a number of points about the housing and planning policies of Labour councils. Here Labour Islington councillors Diarmaid Ward and Asima Shaikh offer their response to Harry’s piece.

We keep our aims very simple in Islington: create a fairer borough by building genuinely affordable homes for local people, protecting jobs, and supporting our growing economy. Since 2010, we’ve delivered 2,500 genuinely affordable homes (by that we mean homes for social rent and some shared ownership homes), and we’ll deliver a further 1,900 by 2022. We’ve also supported over 5,000 people into work since 2014.

Yet, some people out there, Mr Phibbs being one of them, seem to think that the answer to the housing crisis and an economy that only works for the few at the top, is to rid ourselves of our statist inhibitions and let the free market run unrestricted. Whilst it’s obvious that we take a fundamentally different view on what constitutes fairness to Mr Phibbs, it’s also clear that, far from preventing progress, it is councils across London that are providing solutions to these twin challenges.

We are proud of our record on helping people into work and that Islington can expect to see over 50,000 new jobs created in the borough by 2036. This tremendous growth in employment opportunities – opportunities that we want to see local people benefit from in a truly inclusive economy – means that we need to protect our job space, including office and light industrial units.

The government’s Permitted Development Rights (PDRs), allowing job space to be converted into residential units without planning permission, has been and remains one of the biggest threats to SMEs in Islington. Between 2013 and 2018 years, Islington saw approximately 34,000sqm of office space converted to residential use under PDRs, with a further 10,000sqm under construction or intended to be converted into housing.

Not only do PDRs threaten SMEs, as landlords seek to cash in on the housing crisis, they also risk us losing vital space to create new jobs in Islington. That’s why we have imposed an Article 4 Direction in our patch of London’s Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the area in the capital that is of national importance to our economy – to prevent this from happening. Whilst some may say this is a radical approach that meddles in the free market, they might also want to take that argument up with other councils in London, such as Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, who have done exactly the same thing. Whilst we don’t always agree with our colleagues from other political parties, the fact we all think the same on PDRs shows we are just doing what’s right.

Perversely, PDRs also stand in the way of more genuinely affordable homes being built. Islington has some of the toughest planning policies for residential sites in the country, designed to deliver as much genuinely affordable housing as possible. PDRs allow a complete bypass of the planning system. This allows for irresponsible development ignoring our policy of 50% genuinely affordable homes on residential sites of more than ten units. For example, Archway Tower and Whittington House in Islington were converted from office space (with the latter being a fully-occupied office at the time) into over 150 flats, with not a single one being genuinely affordable. We won’t tackle the housing crisis by building dormitory cities for the richest. Homes built this way are far beyond the reach of most local residents, and particularly, all of the people we need to make the borough work for everyone – teachers, social workers, nurses and, dare we say it, local authority planners.

Of course, the market will provide if we step back, supply and demand will govern the system for just ends — that’s what it’s all about, right? Except in London, that demand is basically infinite. London property is being used as a global reserve currency. Unregulated new development designed to appeal to overseas investors solves nothing.

Of course, local authorities also need to be creative with their own land to maximise council home building. In Islington, we’re not only building council homes out of old garages, but also in old under-crofts, on unused parts of estates, and on top of existing council blocks. We’ve built a total of 1,645 homes for council rents this way since 2010, and there are 681 more on the way (up from 550 due to new funding from the Mayor of London).

But Whitehall bureaucracy is also impeding progress here. Councils are still losing too many homes through Right to Buy. What’s more, local authorities only receive 75 per cent of the proceeds of any property that is sold this way — the rest goes to the government. Government red-tape also means that this receipt is only allowed to be used to pay for one third of the build costs of a new council home: we still need to find the other two thirds. Right to Buy proceeds are also not allowed to be combined with any other grant funding, so many councils are struggling to spend them in the time allowed by government.

So, if you want to increase the supply of genuinely affordable homes and help our economy to thrive, start by letting us get on with it. Many local authorities across the country are determined to build council homes and protect local jobs – but the Government needs to stop stacking the system against us. It is this, rather than clichés and partisan point-scoring, that will achieve results.

Cllr Diarmaid Ward is Islington’s Executive Member for Housing and Development. Cllr Asima Shaikh is Islington’s Executive Member for Inclusive Economy and Jobs