Monday 20 November 2017

Failure in Housing Policy - Barnet should hang its head in shame

Last week, the Prime Minister Theresa May visited the Borough to review our progress on housing. Quite unbelieveably, she came along believing that Barnet Council have some sort of story to tell in how things should be done. The council press release is perhaps the most dishonest and misleading press release I've ever read. It makes the claim
The figures show that in 2016/17, Barnet delivered 1,799 additional homes, the 7th highest amongst the London Boroughs.
From this, you may be tempted to believe that Barnet Council has huge teams of builders working around the clock to resolve the housing crisis in the Borough. What the press release should say is

The figures show that in 2016/17 private developers in Barnet built 1,799 new dwellings. Despite Barnet being Londons most populous borough and geographically the second largest, six other Boroughs delivered more homes.

Back in March this year, the Local Government Ombudsman deemed that Barnet Council has "systemic problems with its Homeless services". The Ombudsman concluded

“Councils are legally required to issue a written decision to people who approach them as homeless. Without this those people are left in limbo; denied their review and appeal rights, and are potentially without access to accommodation which they might need.

“The LGO issued a special report on councils’ duties to homeless people in 2011 and I am disappointed to see councils are still making errors in this area. As shown in this report, failing to deal with homeless people properly can have very real and serious consequences for some of the most vulnerable in society.”

Andrew Dismore, our local LGA representative recently revealed that Barnet Council are the 17th worst council for Homelessness in the country. Dismore explained

Recently the National Audit Office warned that government welfare policies are directly contributing to the homelessness crisis. These appalling figures show that the Government has wilfully turned its back on those who’ve had the misfortune to find themselves homeless.
“With Barnet needing 3,134 new homes a year to meet local demand, the consequences of the abject failure of Conservative run Barnet Council, who are always willing to give planning permission for high cost homes but underperform on affordable homes, are obvious.
At the weekend I had a friendly chat with one of our local Conservative councillors and I discussed the issue of housing. They stated "It is not quite as simple as pulling houses out of a magic hat, schemes take years to develop and implement". I responded by asking why the Millbrook Park scheme in Mill Hill East will not be completed for nearly ten years, when we have a desperate need for those houses now. The rather lame response was "that was what was agreed with the developers".

Today we hear that the Chancellor Phillip Hammond is taking measures against developers who are "landbanking", getting land and planning permission and then sitting on it, waiting for land values to rise. It seems quite perverse that Hammond is seeking to address a practice that is rife in the very Borough where the Prime Minister has come to launch her housing policy.

What is the biggest tragedy is that our locality used to be seen as one of the shining examples of social housing. The Watling Estate was a model of how social housing should be done. It has great transport links, shops, schools, places of worship, gardens, parks and green spaces for children and young people and community centres and clubs for teenagers.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy in Barnet is just how many of the new dwellings in the Borough have been bought as investments by rich foreigners as investments. Some of these have never even visited the Borough. When we look to address the housing crisis, surely we should start by making sure empty properties are used. This is surely an absolute no brainer. Barnet is one of the worst offenders for having properties sitting empty, as this map from Metro demonstrates.

It is perverse that with such a problem, homes are sitting empty. You may wonder if Barnet Council has a strategy at all for dealing with homelessnese. The answer is yes, you can check it out here  -

Barnet Housing Strategy 2015 to 2025 - Barnet Council

It says:
Barnet Council has taken action to reduce the number of homeless households living in
emergency temporary accommodation and, in doing so, has enabled more families to
remain close to their support networks in Barnet and in more settled accommodation.
This has been achieved through: 
 Increasing focus on early intervention and homelessness prevention measures, such as tenancy sustainment, youth mediation and domestic violence support services.
 Formation of a Welfare Reform Taskforce to work closely with households affected by welfare reform to minimise the risk of homelessness.
 Through undertaking a financial assessment as part of the housing application and signposting applicants to debt advice provided by Citizens Advice Bureau and Christians Against Poverty.
 Increasing the effectiveness of our private rented sector procurement strategy, including the launch of the Let2Barnet team and landlord incentive scheme for private sector landlords, so that the number of affordable private sector lettings to homeless households increased from 121 in 2010/11 to 393 in 2014/15.
 Sourcing affordable accommodation in less expensive areas outside of Barnet. Going forward, we will continue to work with private landlords to ensure that there is a good supply of affordable accommodation and work to sustain tenancies and prevent
I was quite shocked by this. The first two parts of the strategy are sensible measures, one may ask why these weren't already in place, but it is good that these issues are being recognised and addressed.  As to the remaining three, I find this disgusting. Let me explain why

This financial assessment and "signposting applicants to debt advice provided by Citizens Advice Bureau and Christians Against Poverty." is repulsive to me. The council is identifying issues and then relying on charities and volunteers to deal with the issues that they've identified. The council should have such services within its own service portfolio. A joined up approach should be used when addressing such serious issues. Whilst Christians against Poverty is a fine upstanding organisation, there is no way that they could provide a level of assistance comparable with a council, where access to the relevant people and paperwork to stop evictions etc should be easy to facilitate.

The push to increase the private rented sector is also a highly dubious method of alleviating this issue. Council run social housing is more cost effective and manageable. There is of course a role for private landlords in addressing short term issues, however to suggest that this is part of the long term strategy, simply adds huge costs to the taxpayer. I am a private Landlord and I do it for one simple reason, I can make a healthy profit on the deal. The equation is quite simple. I procure a property, and then I rent it with a mark up on my costs and spend all the dosh on beer and expensive holidays. If the council bought the properties, the bit of the equation that I spend on beer and holidays, they could save and use to build more social housing (Or dish out in tax cuts as they usually do in Barnet).

The final part is even more repulsive. Barnet Council Tories do not seem to recognise that social housing tenants are human beings, with feelings and with the need for friendship and support. Moving children away from their friends and parents away from support networks is to me a form of cruel and unusual punishment. It is all very well saying "it's cheaper up north, lets export our problem families", but is it really how a decent society behaves. Of course, for the Barnet Tories, replacing expensive (to the council) Labour voters with cheap to maintain Tory voters might seem like a jolly good idea to the Tories from leafy Totteridge who run the country. To me it simply banks problems for the UK for the future. Although I am a proud Mill Hillian and a proud Londoner, I am also a proud UK citizen and I want the best for our country. I believe that the idea of sink estates up north where London Tory councils dump their problem families is a repulsive concept and at some time in the future, it will cost us all a small fortune to fix.

And that is why Theresa May visiting Barnet is so repulsive. In short, she seems to have forgotten that she is the Prime Minister of the whole UK, not just the leafy Tory boroughs and the home counties. And that is why it is shameful that she came to The London Borough of Barnet to launch her housing policy.

If you want to see how the brave new Barnet is being built, checkout this video of a disabled man from Sweets Way being evicted to make way for a posh housing development

And this from West Hendon

Sadly this is the reality of the gentrification of The London Borough of Barnet. But never mind, if your life is laid to waste, your family split up and dispersed across the country and your house knocked down, the Council will very kindly signpost you  to the nearest friendly Church, where you can cry on someones shoulder over a cup of tea and biscuit (* Terms and conditions may apply).


Jaybird said...

Christians Against Poverty are not a fine upstanding organisation. They were kicked out of the Advice Alliance because their practice of bringing an evangelical layperson to private advice sessions and putting pressure on people to listen to them bear witness and to pray for their debts to be lifted, was deemed unethical.

Glyn Burns said...

Brilliant piece, Roger. Totally spot on.