Fairness Commission delivers report on housing crisis

The launch of the Fairness Commission report. Pic: Tower Hamlets Council

The launch of the Fairness Commission report. Photo: Tower Hamlets Council

The crisis of affordable housing in Tower Hamlets is tackled in a new report.

Titled “Time To Act” and launched by the Tower Hamlets Fairness Commission on Monday, the report challenges the government as well as the local council, businesses and community groups to work together to make the borough fairer and protect its diversity in the face of gentrification.

Giles Fraser, Chair of the Fairness Commission said: “London is being transformed into a place I don’t want to live in, where people who are poor or even on modest income are being pushed out of the centre.”

Four of the Commission’s sixteen recommendations confront the lack of reasonably priced housing in the area. Its proposals include calls upon the government to allow local councils to retain the proceeds from Right to Buy sales and reduce its restrictions on local councils borrowing to build homes.

Lindsay Mackie, a member of the commission said: “The Housing Revenue Account cap – imposed by the government and opposed by most local London authorities including the Mayor – is a real barrier to creating the housing that local people need.”

“But this is a matter for national government. Their obsession with reducing the deficit is wrong headed, ideological and harmful to the growth of the UK.

The report also suggests Tower Hamlets take the lead in demonstrating the negative impact of investment in the London property market, the detrimental effects of which are revealed in the report itself.

Evidence gathered by the Commission between November 2012 and March 2013 revealed that today, many low income families in Tower Hamlets live in overcrowded conditions, unable to secure social housing due to huge waiting lists, while luxury developments are built driven by demand from overseas investors.

These properties often lie empty for long periods of time, filling much needed space with “ghost towns” of opulent homes. Constant demand for high end property also means only 24% of households in the area can afford to buy their own home. Most ordinary residents have to struggle to keep up with private sector rents that are rising at almost double the London average, the report said.

Instead, the report recommends financial institutions work with the council and house builders to develop new models of long term investment in social housing. Mackie acknowledged that in the current climate of “short term and speculative” investment it “will be hard to get businesses on board.” However, Mackie is hopeful that with the help of Canary Wharf, this could be an “innovative and potentially successful way of providing more housing.”

Mackie said another important recommendation made in the report is changing the definition of affordable rent, currently set at 80% of the market rate, which she defines as “ludicrous.”

The Commission asked that rent models be based on the income of tenants instead and that the standard of private rented accommodation be improved and tenants better protected through a landlord registry scheme.

Rob Imrie, a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths specialising in urban governance and community development, said: “Redefining affordable rent is a crucial recommendation as so-called affordable social housing is not affordable to many people.

“The housing system in the UK is a mess. We need council housing, pure and simple, and decent rental property managed by organisations other than exploitative private landlords.”

As well as housing the report focused on how to get around 33,000 of Tower Hamlets residents currently in arrears with their debts back on their feet. Other recommendations include better access to and promotion of good financial products rather than pay-day lenders, universal access to WiFi in the borough and methods to reconfigure and improve the process of moving people into work.

Some of the Commission’s other proposals have already been taken on board: Barclays Bank and other Canary Wharf businesses will now offer work placements to 25% of school leavers in Tower Hamlets. The question now is whether those recommendations made regarding housing will also be carried out.

Tower Hamlets Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, who commissioned the report, said he is “happy” to take up the Commission’s recommendations and make use of “new partnerships in the borough”.

However, Labour’s candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, said following these recommendations through “requires the sort of thoughtful leadership that Tower Hamlets lacks under the current Mayor”.

Imrie said: “The report recognises that we depend on others for our fortunes and that social actions can create unfair situations or disadvantage and misfortune for people. Its recommendations make sense and offer a different way of looking at the world that understands the relational nature of our lives.”

“But the rational of capitalism is to exploit, to take, to profit and not bear the social consequences. The notion of “fairness” doesn’t seem to figure in much debate about social issues. Similarly while the recommendations make sense, they are unlikely to be listened to by this Government or the Mayor of London.”

More information and the full report are available here.

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