Since April Mayor Johnson has had direct control of government funds allocated to London for the building of new "affordable" homes, of which there are several different kinds. Nicky Gavron, who speaks for the London Assembly Labour group on housing, doesn't like the way he's spending it or the constraints he wants to place on the capital's borough councils ability to limit the rent levels of "affordable" homes they might generate themselves.
The disagreement brings a new dimension to the debate about who can afford to live where in the capital or, indeed, live here at all. Gavron has fiercely attacked the mayor for not investing any money in starting new homes for social rent - that's the cheapest end of the wide "affordable" range, with levels in London generally set at 40-50% of private rental market rates - and using it instead for the government's new "affordable rent" homes product.
"Affordable rent" homes are a new addition to the general "affordable" category and are intended to house people on London's huge waiting lists for social rent homes. However, most will be more expensive. This is the type Johnson supports. Gavron writes:
At a time when over 200,000 people are on social housing waiting lists in London, the Mayor is abandoning them…We need more social housing not less. Many Londoners, especially those in lower paid jobs and pensioners need social housing, otherwise we will find ourselves with Paris style outer-city ghettos. Do we really want that here?
She's also described as an "utter disgrace" his desire to alter his London Plan – the capital's master spatial planning document – to direct individual boroughs against putting in place planning measures that would help them to keep down the rents of affordable homes they secure locally through developers.
Several boroughs agree with her. A varied alliance of nine inner London authorities - including Labour Islington, Tory Kensington and Chelsea, Labour Hackney and Tory Westminster – argued strongly against the alterations Johnson wants to make when they were examined in public last week. Their written joint response claims that the changes would be at odds with national planning policy, create "irresolvable internal inconsistencies" within the London Plan and "improperly" restrict the boroughs' powers.
At stake is the ability of boroughs to bring about a supply of homes to those of their residents for whom local market rents are too high. They want to be able to set their own limits on the rent levels of "affordable rent" homes in their areas below the maximum allowed by national policy of up to 80% of local market levels, which in the case of the nine objectors can be very high indeed. Through his proposed changes to the London Plan the mayor is seeking to prevent this.
What could or should he be doing differently with the housing powers and resources he has? Is his attempt to reduce borough autonomy to hold down the levels of "affordable rent" justified?
To begin, it's important to note that the funding of social rented housing building by the mayor hasn't yet dried up. He continues to contribute to the cost of the completion of such homes that were started before his new powers were devolved to him. (A statement from the mayor given to BBC London recently said that, "between now and 2015 nearly 11,000 homes will be delivered specifically for the social rented sector.").
Also, it's been stressed to me by sources in City Hall that the mayor inherited the change in government policy that entailed a massive cut in housing grant and brought the affordable rent product into existence. In other words, it wasn't his idea. Even so, as was confirmed at last week's budget and performance committee, the new "affordable" homes to be started next financial year under the mayor will comprise almost entirely the low cost home ownership type or "affordable rent."
Could the mayor help fund social housing if he wanted too? "There's nothing in the Localism Act to stop him," according to one planning policy sage, though the government anticipates funding it only "in limited circumstances," such as when tenants have to be "decanted" – such an unpleasant word - because of regeneration schemes. It would be difficult for the mayor to go against a key element of the same coalition strategy that placed him in charge of affordable housing invest in the first place.
And putting together "affordable" house building plans involves some quite exacting maths. The new system effectively requires housing associations – who deliver the "affordable" homes for the mayor – making up for the loss of government grant by generating more income in other ways, including through the different levels of "affordable rent" they charge. These can be as high as 80% of local market rates. In high-priced London, especially its most expensive areas, that can be not very affordable at all, especially for Londoners who might qualify for old-fashioned, lower cost social housing
The mayor has said wants the average "affordable rent" level across the city to be only 65% of market rates, which he says will keep them below the level of government welfare caps. This average means that the rents of some "affordable rent" properties will be just about as low as social rent levels – for example, London and Quadrant tells me that some of the "affordable" element of the homes they say they will build on the contested Walthamstow Stadium site will "affordable rent" dwellings let at that sort of rate.
Yet the unarguable trend is for future mayor-funded homes that are supposed to cater for Londoners on current social housing waiting lists is up, up, up. The mayor could have aspired to a London-wide average lower than 65%, but an argument against that is that the lower the "affordable rent" levels charged, the more pressure is placed on housing association finances, which might mean fewer homes, including "affordable," ones of all kinds being built overall.
But would it better to have fewer "affordable rent" homes that were also cheaper to rent? In other words, is the mayor putting numbers ahead of need? Maximising volume is certainty one his stated goals, and part of what informs that wish of his to restrict boroughs' ability to keep locally-produced "affordable rent" levels down to levels that their residents who are need of them can pay.
The fine detail of this is complex. But it comes down to the mayor wanting to prevent boroughs using planning guidance to prevent "affordable rent" levels being as high as 80% of local market rates, preferring those levels to be negotiated on a scheme-by-scheme basis (which would give developers more power to have the rent levels set higher). Why? Because, as one of his proposed alterations puts it, this, "might restrict the numbers of new affordable homes."
Nicky Gavron is outraged:
Johnson's failure to build enough affordable housing is bad enough, but now he's going around and telling local councils that they can't even try to make up the difference. I couldn't think of a more direct attack on localism and giving local communities the power to decide what happens in their area.
Some might detect a turf war element in the boroughs' resistance. However, the wider context is that "affordable" supply in London still lags far behind demand and the trajectory of government and mayoral policy is to make supply in the future less affordable.
Mayor Johnson makes large claims for his delivery of affordable homes, but I don't recall his complaining about those gigantic cuts in grant. Some of his closest political allies and intellectual kindred spirits would like to be rid of not only social housing but of all forms of subsidy for housing. Those "Paris-style, outer city ghettos" might be a long way off, but don't appear to be receding either.
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