My response to Theresa May’s conference speech 2017

The PM says it’s her ‘personal mission’ to fix our “broken housing market’. If this were the start of a wholly new approach to building housing for those who need it most, then I would welcome it, but if the Prime Minster thinks that £2bn by itself will solve the problem, she is wrong – it will be just a drop in the ocean.

The London Boroughs are ready, willing, and able to step up the amount of new building that we do and recognising that there are more homeless families in London than in the whole of the rest of the country, we expect to be at the forefront of a renaissance of Council Housing.

The housing situation in London is now a full-blown emergency that requires immediate action. According to the Government’s own calculations, the capital needs 72,000 new homes a year to meet demand. Yet, without urgent investment in social housing, and a lifting of the borrowing cap for councils to build more of its own housing, many Londoners will not be able to secure the homes that they desperately need.

I grew up in a Council House and I have spent years trying to get more homes built in London, despite the obstacles put in our way by this government and its predecessor. If Mrs May is serious I would be very happy to meet her personally and explain how she can go from conference rhetoric, to action tomorrow.

 

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My South London Press column 06/10/17

One of the first problems I had to deal with when I became Mayor in 2002 was the poor performance of the Council’s Refuse collection service. It had to be a priority because it is something that affects everyone and quite reasonably if a Council can’t take the rubbish away properly, then folk are going to be sceptical about their ability to deal with other things too. I did get it sorted out eventually and with help of some great staff who both do the collecting as well as organise things it has been one of the most successful services provided by the Council for the last 15 years.

Lewisham was one of the first Councils to send its rubbish to an incinerator rather than bury it in holes in the ground. This means we provide a more environmentally friendly service not least because our trucks don’t drive all the way to Essex to unload.  However when it comes to measuring how much waste is recycled, Europe choose to ignore the fact that by burning our rubbish we can reclaim both heat and power as well.  They only measure what goes into the green bins and are complaining that our recycling rates are too low.

Fifteen years ago it wasn’t possible to recycle food but now it is and that has opened up the possibility of changing the way we deal with waste in Lewisham. Over the last few months many of you will have received new grey bins for recycling food waste. These come with instructions about how you can separate food waste and put it out to be collected each week. This new food waste recycling service started this week and as a result we will only collect the reduced amounts of rubbish that go into the black bins once a fortnight.  The new grey food bin, green recycling bin and the brown garden waste bin, if you have them, will still be emptied each week.

Making a change like this is inevitably going to be a bit complicated until we all get used to the new system so please bear with us and if there are a few hiccups to start with, it doesn’t mean the system isn’t working, it just will take a few weeks to settle down to a new routine.

We consulted you, our residents, before we started to make these changes and the great majority of you felt it was the right thing to do – some of you were particularly keen to see our recycling rate go up in future while others thought that a potential saving of £0.5m each year was important in these very difficult times of continuing austerity.

Finally a couple of things to remember – only put food in the new grey bin – nothing else please and when you put it outside make sure the handle is in the position that locks the lid down so nothing gets spilled!

The Homelessness Reduction Act needs proper funding

The Homelessness Reduction Bill introduced by Bob Blackman was a rare example of a private members’ bill attracting government support and passing into law.

It also had the support of almost everyone who has to address the challenge of homelessness, particularly in London where 70% of the nation’s homeless families are found.

Now an act, it could transform the way homelessness services are delivered and ensure that all eligible applicants are given the help they need. But this will only happen if local and national government work together to identify how the act can be translated into concrete actions and how those actions can be resourced.

The London boroughs fully support the act’s approach to tackling homelessness, which rightly focuses on prevention and early intervention as well as working with a broader range of residents in a more collaborative way.

We want to honour the intentions of the act by providing expanded services that address the full range of factors in people’s lives that can lead to them becoming homeless.

However, we are concerned about the way the Homelessness Reduction Act is currently being implemented. There is a real risk that the act’s landmark reforms could fail to reduce homelessness due to a lack of proper planning and unrealistic funding arrangements from government.

With less than seven months until the Homelessness Reduction Act comes into force on 1 April 2018, local authorities are still waiting for information from government that is vital for preparing to deliver the expanded homelessness prevention offer required by the act.

Crucially this includes both the funding allocations and the code of guidance. London boroughs are doing as much as they can, but without this information they cannot act with certainty to recruit additional staff or enhance their services in appropriate ways.

From 1 April 2018, boroughs will need to provide higher levels of support to a broader number of people at risk of homelessness as well as earlier interventions to the 54,000 homelessness households currently being accommodated, with every stage subject to review.

We are seeking to make this step change despite having experienced a 60% reduction in our funding since 2010, which has had a very significant impact on existing services.

Government must provide local authorities with the additional funding needed to run these important new services. Data from a survey of London boroughs suggests that providing expanded homelessness prevention and relief services will cost around £77m per year in London.

One of the ways government could help is by removing the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap. The restrictions that have been placed on LHA and its uprating since 2011, including the freezing of LHA rates from 2016 until 2021, have meant that it is increasingly difficult to meet the cost of renting in London even at the lowest end of the market. Indeed, this insufficiency has itself been a significant driver of homelessness.

We welcome the Targeted Affordability Fund (TAF), but it isn’t enough to meet the needs of those threatened, or at risk of, homelessness because a significant proportion of LHA rates are already at the level of the cap.

Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) are being used by boroughs to help households on a case-by-case basis. However, the level of DHP funding allocated to London is currently significantly lower than its peak in 2013/14 (£40.1m in 2017/18 compared to £56.6m in 2013/14) and insufficient to meet even the current challenges presented by the government’s welfare changes. DHP is also by nature supposed to provide only short-term support, and is an inadequate solution to a systemic issue that can only be resolved at a central government level.

As we move to implement the act we need leadership and support from the centre if we are to avoid missing this once-in-a-generation opportunity to help thousands of vulnerable homeless families.

Local government is ready, willing and able to play its part but we urgently need the guidance to be published and proper levels of funding to be announced so we can get moving.

This article first appeared in Inside Housing earlier this week

THE AUTUMN STATEMENT 2016 – SOME GOOD NEWS, BUT A HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT TOO

This is what I said in my role as London Councils’ executive member for housing:-

“Today’s announcement is an positive step in the right direction. London Councils has made clear there is a desperate need for thousands more homes, of a range of tenures, to be built.  This specific cash injection for affordable homes will allow the Mayor of London, boroughs and other partners to carry out and extend ambitious plans to properly tackle the capital’s housing crisis.

“London Councils will continue to make the case for boroughs to be given the tools they need to meet the huge challenges they face. Councils are pulling their weight by granting planning permission for tens of thousands of houses across a range of tenures each year. However, the completion rates for housing remain low, and ministers still need to work with boroughs, the GLA and developers to ensure permitted housing is built out in the city – and that the Government’s housing policy works for all Londoners.”

THE GOOD NEWS

  • London will receive £3.15 billion as its share of national affordable housing funding to deliver over 90,000 homes.
  • Devolution to London of the adult education budget, and giving London greater control over the delivery of employment support services for the hardest to help.
  • There will be continuing discussions with London on possible devolution of further powers.
  • Relaxation of restrictions on government grant to allow a wider range of housing-types.
  • The National Living Wage will increase from £7.20 to £7.50 in April next year although this fall well short of the London Living Wage which is currently £9.75
  • From April the Universal Credit taper rate reduces from 65% to 63% – but other welfare changes are untouched and will hit some families hard.
  • In the private rental market an end to letting agents being able to charge unregulated fees to tenants – in future Landlords will pay

…..AND THE BAD

  • No extra money for the NHS – the only mention is a repeat of the £10B announced last year and not a word about Adult Social Care –In London alone the cumulative funding shortfall for adult social care will be at least £800 million by the end of this Parliament – this means that the NHS and Local Government face a very difficult time in the coming months

 Steve Bullock

23 November 2016

My South London Press column, 18/11/2016

Those of us who grew up in the 60s remember the letters STP in white on a red background from advertising on racing cars – the mystery was we saw the adverts but never actually saw the product itself. In the last few months those same letters have re-emerged but this time they refer to Sustainability and Transformation Plans for the NHS. But what those plans mean is almost as mysterious as the STP of old (it was a petrol additive in case you were wondering!).

As I write, most of the 44 STPs haven’t even been published but at least the plan covering South East London is available – along with other Council leaders from this area I insisted that it be made public as soon as possible and you will be able to find it by visiting our web site.

The background to the making of these plans is the huge financial pressures facing not only the NHS but Councils that provide Social Care too. We are living longer, which is great news, but it also means that there are more of us needing medical attention and care in later life. This would have been a challenge in any circumstances but the impact of the Government’s austerity programme has significantly reduced the resources available to meet that rising demand.

In Lewisham we remember only too well the ham fisted attempt to run down A&E and Maternity services at Lewisham Hospital which we halted after a great public campaign and a legal challenge to the Secretary of State. One of the mistakes that Government made then was to try and impose a “top down” solution. It was always accepted that there might need to be some changes but these needed to be based on local knowledge and be subject to thorough local discussion. Instead they were worked up by expensive consultancies that offered neither of those things.

If the publication of the STPs is the beginning of a process where everyone who has an interest and a contribution to make is given an opportunity to engage we might see some positive outcomes. It is very early days and we will all need to look closely at what is in these plans and what they might means for our communities. Some of the headlines make sense – I think we all know that if we can stop folk becoming ill in the first place it is better for all concerned. Equally getting Health services and Council services working together seamlessly can only be a good thing.

However it will be the detail of how these things are achieved that really matters. If this is just a way to make cuts in order to balance the books many of us will feel very let down. To enable our population to become healthier, which will potentially save money in the long run, the resources must be invested now to change the way things work. No amount of effort locally to improve things will make a difference if the Government don’t face up to the reality that they are currently failing to fund both Health Care and Social Care adequately. The Chancellor will be making his Autumn Statement soon – it’s his chance to show that he recognises the problem and is willing to address it – let see if he takes that chance!

Response to the Government’s decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow Airport

The government’s announcement on Heathrow is hugely disappointing – it assumes that every increasing numbers of flights are inevitable without any debate about the damage that this is doing to the environment and whether a few of the billions Heathrow will cost should be used to improve less damaging forms of transport. But even if we accept that more capacity is needed this is the wrong way to achieve it. It was only in May that Londoners overwhelmingly backed mayoral candidates who are against Heathrow expansion. The decision is a kick in the teeth for democracy. The Gatwick alternative might actually be delivered and could certainly happen much quicker.

Once more, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is providing leadership on this issue and I welcome his comments today;-

“I will continue to challenge this decision and I am exploring how I can best be involved in any legal process over the coming months.

“Most urgently, the Government must set out how it’s possible for Londoners not to suffer from the additional air and noise pollution that we know will be created by an additional runway at Heathrow.

“They also need to guarantee that they will fully fund the billions of pounds needed to improve road and rail connections to Heathrow – Londoners cannot be expected to pick up the bill for this.”

My South London Press column, 14/10/2016

The oldest building in Lewisham is the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Ladywell which was built in 1774 although there had been a church on that site for over 1000 years. I am very fortunate as mayor to be invited to visit many places of worship from time to time – some are ancient like St. Mary’s while others are much more recent and have involved the conversion of buildings originally built for other purposes like the Lewisham Islamic Centre just down the road. What many of them have in common is that they are much more than places of worship – they play a vital role in our borough in different ways and serve not only their own congregations but the wider community too.

I was at St Mary’s because they were celebrating the success of a fund raising campaign to enable them to repair the church roof. As is always the case with such appeals there are a mixture of individual donations and some larger ones from institutions. In this case the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has provided a significant grant and the Leathersellers’ Livery Company has also helped out. The HLF are supporting a number of projects in Lewisham which enable existing facilities to be restored or brought back into use, and at a time when public bodies are short of cash they play a vital role.

The Leathersellers’ Company is one of the ancient Livery Companies of the City of London dating back to 1444 but they have been active in Lewisham for many years and have strong local connections, not least through their work in supporting schools. The Leathersellers’ Federation which consists of the three Prendergast schools has its origins in the first girls’ secondary school built in 1890, on a site provided by the Leathersellers’ Company.

The banking crisis of 2008 led to a prolonged period of austerity in our country and since the vote to leave the EU in June this has been exacerbated by great uncertainties about the future for many individuals in our city, but also for the economic well being of the city as a whole. Those of us who are active in politics have also been involved in different ways in difficult issues for our own parties.

As I sat in St. Mary’s I was firstly grateful for the way our faith based groups of all kinds work together and with the wider community in these difficult times. But then knowing that men and women had visited that very site for hundreds of years in war and peace, good times and bad, reminded me that we must keep our current challenges in perspective. Our community is resilient and will come through those challenges just as generations before us did, and as future generations will too I am sure.

A response to Sajid Javid’s conference speech

Speeches at Party Conferences are notoriously strong on rhetoric and light on detail so responses to them always need to be caveated that the detail will be awaited before reaching a final conclusion. Nevertheless we have a new government in office and the Conservative Conference is for many minsters the first opportunity to indicate how they are approaching their portfolios.

Inevitably it is what they have to say that is relevant to meeting London’s Housing crisis that attracts my attention and whether there is anything to offer hope that the efforts being led by the Mayor and supported across London’s Boroughs will be joined by government support at pace and scale.

To begin to solve that crisis there needs to be an unprecedented increase in the number of new homes built in London each year and most of that increase will involve units for rent not for sale. Those rental units will have to meet the needs of a wide range of Londoners of varying incomes and family sizes and a significant proportion must be genuinely affordable.

The availability of land and construction capacity will also be key considerations while the regulations that will be published shortly subsequent to the passage of the Housing and Planning Act will need to be scrutinized very carefully for the effect they will have.

So what did we learn from Sajid Javid’s speech in Birmingham today?

Three major initiatives were announced starting with a £3 billion Home Builders Fund. The aim of which is to help build more than 225,000 new homes and create thousands of jobs. No one is going to decry more money for housing and hopefully this will not be overly constrained so that the money can be allocated quickly and fairly. 

The second announcement referred to a new initiative described as Accelerated Construction on public land, taking Government-owned land and partnering with contractors and investors to speed up housebuilding. This may be intended to build on the work that started in the capital with the London Land Commission and the key question will be what the involvement of local authorities is going to be. He also spoke of the creation of new supply chains using offsite construction, the aim being to encourage new models of building to make houses that people want, more cheaply and at pace. It is hoped that these measures will allow work to get started on 15,000 homes by 2020.  It is reassuring that the minister has recognised the significance of this form of construction but 15,000 seems a modest target?

Next came a reference to bringing forward of a package of measures to encourage urban regeneration and to build on brownfield land. For example, abandoned shopping centres being transformed into new communities, and increasing density of housing around stations to build homes that people want to live in. Perhaps it’s because I was doing a topping out at one of the towers in Lewisham Town Centre on Friday but this did sound like a statement of the obvious!

Of course these were really just whetting our appetite for the White paper he intends to publish later with “further significant measures” towards the ambition for a million new homes by 2020. It is helpful to have a government that recognises the scale of the problem we face but they in turn need to recognise that local government woke up that quite some years ago and has been addressing the need for more new homes imaginatively since. Whatever the detail of the minister’s plans they need to enable local authorities and housing associations as well as the private sector to get on with things rather than have to meet excessively restrictive requirements imposed from the centre.

Cllr Crada Onuegbu

I was extremely sorry to learn recently of the death of Cllr Crada Onuegbu after a long illness.  Crada served with me on Lewisham Council for many years.  She was the Cabinet member for Community Safety and later for Young People.  She also served as a member of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority and at the time of her death she was chair of the national organisation Local Authority Action for Southern Africa.

She made an outstanding contribution to our borough in many ways and only stood down as a cabinet member due to ill health.  Her understanding of the issues which faced our community in the context of dealing with crime and safety was outstanding and her commitment to our young people was unstinting.

I am proud to have had Crada as a colleague and a friend and I know that we lost a great servant of our borough.  Our thoughts are with her family at this sad time.

My South London Press column, 09/09/2016

The description of London’s green spaces as “The Lungs of London” goes back to the 18th century and is attributed to William Pitt, the Elder, who served as Prime Minister. Lewisham certainly has some great parks that act as its lungs from Blackheath to Blythe Hill fields and many more. However the opening of a brand new park isn’t something that happens very often but last weekend in Deptford I was able to do just that when Charlottenburg Park was officially launched. There is a little history to this and to the name of the park. Deptford Green Secondary School suffered from being spread cross two sites and a few years ago it was rebuilt on one of the sites by using some of the land that had been part of Fordham Park.

The new school is a great building and works much better than the old ones but in a city as crowded as London green spaces are important and the decision was made that the parkland lost – should be replaced. The second school site which was released following the completion of the new building will eventually provide much needed housing but it was agreed with the developers of the site that they would provide the new park there as well. It will be some time before the housing begins to be built but the developers kindly agreed to do the park before anything happens.

This new open space has things for all ages with play equipment and spaces to simply sit and watch the world go by – and some “stepping stones” which are great fun for young and old! The local community were consulted about what the name should be and I was delighted that they chose “Charlottenburg Park”. In 1968 Lewisham “twinned” with Charlottenburg” and there have been many links made between the two towns since, involving local residents, and cultural and sporting exchanges. At the launch we were joined by the DUCK Cycle Club – a family friendly club based in Lewisham. Some of the club members recently cycled all the way to Charlottenburg from Lewisham.

Lewishamstrasse is a wide avenue leading off the main shopping street in Charlottenburg and while there was an area near our town centre known as “Charlottenburg Gardens” it wasn’t easy to find and has now disappeared with the new road layout there. The new park is very different and we will be proud to take future visitors from Charlottenburg to see it. We may be leaving the EU at some point very soon but those links of friendship which extend across Europe will continue.

As summer comes to an end we will all be getting ready to deal with the very significant challenges that continue to face our borough and our city but seeing a lovely new green space coming into use was a very positive way to start.