Article by Councillor Marc Francis, Bow East
With the second wave of Coronavirus now upon us, it’s difficult to find a silver lining to this terrible pandemic. However, the support many people gave their neighbours or other vulnerable people they didn’t even know before March is certainly one positive. This crisis has been a sharp reminder of the vital importance of community, especially in big cities.
Of course, the East End is legendary for its community spirit. And while that spirit is different today than it was in the 1930s, 1950s or even the 1980s, it is certainly alive and kicking. I’ve always argued Tower Hamlets Council needs to work harder to find ways to positively strengthen community cohesion. It definitely shouldn’t unthinkingly undermine it. Nothing has a greater impact in this respect than our housing allocations policy as we seek a transparent and equitable way of rationing the scarce resource of council and housing association homes amongst the 20,000 households on our waiting list.
I would argue that Tower Hamlets Council got this badly wrong at times in the past. In the eighties the Liberal administrations in Bethnal Green and Bow prioritised the sons and daughters of existing residents above anyone else. Later, however, as the supply of social housing became more and more constrained, the authority went the other way and at times it seemed the only people ever rehoused were those in medical priority, homeless or overcrowded. That left thousands of young people without any hope of a place of their own in the East End they grew up in.
As Lead Member for Housing back in 2010, I introduced a new Choice Based Lettings scheme, which equalised the priority awarded to homeless and overcrowded households. It also created a new Band 3 of those who were classified as “adequately housed”. This included the many adult children of existing tenants still sharing bedrooms with their siblings, but also those at the top of tower blocks wanting to move lower down and those wanting to move to another part of the Borough. Councillors agreed that a quota of at least 5 per cent of lettings would go to applicants in this new Band – around 150 a year. Applicants in that Band would have to wait many years, but they would have a chance in the end.
Frustratingly, things didn’t turn out quite like that in practice. Back in 2014, we discovered that the 5 per cent quota wasn’t being adhered to. Several of us “called-in” the Housing Allocations Policy former Mayor Lutfur Rahman had signed-off. To be fair, he agreed not only to instruct officers to stick to the quota in future, but also make additional lettings to those in Band 3 to make up the deficit. A small victory perhaps, but an important one nonetheless.
Last year, Mayor John Biggs authorised a consultation on changes to the Choice Based Lettings scheme, including the abolition of Band 3. In the course of discussions with officers, we also discovered that they had been counting moves of older people into sheltered accommodation as part of the Band 3 quota, which is a complete manipulation of the policy.
Thankfully, in the face of overwhelming opposition during the consultation, John rowed back from completely abolishing Band 3. However, the decision he eventually made on this last month still removes over 1,000 existing social tenants under the age of 50 from the Waiting List. Bizarrely, most of these applicants would actually be giving up a flat of the same size if they make a successful bid, so no one else loses out. In fact, more people end up getting the move they need. All that cutting these applicants achieves is saving the council a little bit of admin.
The new policy also restricts the maximum period homeless families who have been temporarily placed in a private flat in another Borough can stay on Tower Hamlets Waiting List to just three years. Very few are likely to make a successful bid for social housing in that time, so essentially this is luring them into accepting a private sector offer with little real chance of ever coming back to Tower Hamlets. A very similar scheme in Lambeth was challenged in court earlier this year. Lambeth backed down before the judgment, and reinstated all those families to its own Waiting List.
That’s why Cllrs Tarik Khan, Shad Choudhury, Shah Suhel, Mohammed Pappu and I have called-in John Biggs decision. We want these 1,000 applicants restored to Band 3 and homeless families allowed to stay on our list until they are rehoused. We are also asking for the Band 3 quota to be adhered to without counting sheltered lettings and for a review of the experience of homeless families dumped into private sector flats over the past few years. We will take our case to the council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee next Monday.
None of us thinks these choices are easy ones. But if we truly believe in the value of community cohesion, then we need housing allocations policies that underpin it, not undermine it.
Councillor Marc Francis (Labour)
Vice Chair, Housing & Regeneration Scrutiny Sub-committee
Bow East ward, London Borough of Tower Hamlets