Posts Tagged housing

What future for housing democracy under Labour?

Disappointing news that the Labour Council has rejected LibDem proposals to consider balloting tenants on the future of council housing management in Islington.

I should declare an interest as Homes for Islington (HFI), Islington’s ALMO, is my freeholder. As a leaseholder, I’ve had a generally good experience of them. The few pieces of work they’ve done on our relatively-modern property (repainting railings, upgrading communal aerial) have been carried out efficiently. The railings in particular were a good job well done, going from a rather peaky eau-de-nil to a glossy black, with minimum hassle.

However I also know of too many cases where the sheer size of HFI has left a small issue festering into a major grievance, because it was not dealt with promptly in the first place. As well as major concerns over the cost of major works, and the frustration leaseholders feel when presented with huge, mandatory bills.

No-one wants to go back to the state that Islington council housing had reached by the late 1990s. When I was first a councillor, Labour presided over squalid estates where postmen feared to tread. Tenants were desperate for a change and voted whenever they could to transfer out to housing associations. Money was wasted and there was no accountability.

The ALMO was supposed to achieve the best mix between getting the perceived better management of housing associations, while retaining secure council tenancy and rents. Most pertinently, it was the only option at the time for getting vital Decent Homes money out of the Labour government.

Now that’s been done, is there a case for taking the service back in-house when the ALMO ends? The arms-length structure has led to perceived buck-passing between HFI and the Council, made worse in the many council-owned street properties where Partners for Islington – the company contracted to deliver long-term management of decent homes works on period properties – is also involved.

If Labour are truly going to look at all the options, it seems strange to rule the in-house one out. And wrong not to let residents have their say. The LibDem council held a consultative ballot before bringing the ALMO in. Labour’s attitude to housing still seems to be “you may live in it, but we know best”.

I’d look at every option, but whoever the landlord is, my preference would be devolving more money and power to tenants & residents by setting up TMOs, housing co-ops and other forms of self-management, within a community housing framework.

The best-run, safest and most attractive estates in Islington are those with the most empowered residents. Not those who see their T&RA as a stick to beat the freeholder, but those who get stuck in and help run their estates themselves. You get better accountability, better value-for-money and residents who feel pride, not frustration, when they look around their neighbourhood.

For this to work the freeholder must devolve enough money and support to make the estate self-management viable, and there must be clear, simple and consistent demarcations of responsibilities between the different tiers. But it can be done, as shown by estates like the Half-Moon tenants’ co-op in Barnsbury.

This afternoon I’m joining the St. Mary’s Path Estate Tenants’ Association, and their landlord Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association (ISHA), to celebrate the great work they’ve done in providing positive activities for residents of the estate and the wider community, through having just such a good partnership.

Islington Labour please note.

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Signing the pledge

Signing the pledge used to refer to going teetotal (not something I’m about to do, although I respect those who have). But there are now pledges a gogo for us all to sign up to.

Today is the last day to vote in the Power2010 ballot on which reform pledges you most want the next government to fulfil. As I’ve blogged before, these include lots of excellent ideas, including fairer votes, fixed term parliaments, ending ID cards, and the right to recall corrupt MPs.

Another pledge vote is for the top House Proud pledge, promoted by Inside Housing. I’ve already signed up to their petition pledging to make housing a priority in the next Parliament.

Housing is a vital issue in communities like Islington South & Finsbury. Islington Council is building new council homes which is great but we also need work to make existing homes greener, and action to bring the thousands of empty homes into use.

But what should the top policy be? There are three candidates for the pledge: to continue the investment in decent homes; to retrofit existing homes to make them greener; or to put residents ahead of the bottom line. I’ve gone for option B, green retrofitting. Why? Well, option C is nice but vague, and option A, the decent homes programme, is retrospective anyway.

Option B, a programme to make existing homes greener, would fight climate change, provide sustainable local jobs and give people warmer homes with lower fuel bills. It’s a brilliant idea. Just a pity it’s one the Labour government vetoed when the LibDem-backed Fuel Poverty Bill came to the vote last year….

Last week I had a really good meeting with UNICEF-UK. They happen to be based in this constituency, and are well worth a visit if only for the great gift shop at reception, all in aid of their excellent work promoting children’s rights around the world.

UNICEF are promoting three pledges for parliamentary candidates:

1. UK Child Poverty: Around 4 million UK children are denied a childhood free from poverty. Living in poverty has a profound impact on children’s health, education and well-being.
I agree to take urgent action in Parliament to end child poverty in the UK by 2020.
2. International Development: Millions of children living in low-income countries are denied their rights. They lack access to healthcare, education, fair treatment and ultimately a childhood.
I agree to champion the rights of children in low income countries and highlight the urgent need to meet the Millennium Development Goals.
3. Child Rights: Most people do not know about the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This means children are often denied their right to be heard and have their views taken into account.
I agree to listen to young people in my prospective constituency and provide them with opportunities to make their voice heard on decisions which affect them.
I’m very pleased to have signed up to all three.

It is a disgrace that the Labour government has failed to hit its own child poverty reduction goals. Liberal Democrats are committed to tackling child poverty at home, through policies such as the pupil premium, and globally through effective international aid and development. It is my aim to work with existing programmes such as ‘Listen Up!’ in Islington to give my younger constituents their chance to air their views.

I also support votes at 16 (another of the Power2010 ideas) to give more young people a real say in the democratic process. It’s daft that at 16 you can pay taxes, and join the armed forces, even get married, yet not have a vote.

There’s no age restriction on the Power2010 and Inside Housing pledges, so get voting!

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Building for the future

More evidence that despite optimistic Government pronouncements, the long tail of the recession is still affecting us.

Shelter have published figures showing a fall in house-building, mortgage lending is down, and unemployment in London is the worst since Labour came to power in 1997.

Last week I met with the National Federation of Roofing Contractors, based in Finsbury. They do great work cracking down on cowboy traders, and promoting green roofs, in partnership with the inspiring Dusty Gedge. But like many in the construction industry, their members are facing a downturn in orders, with knockon effects on suppliers and retailers across the country.

There’s a stronger case than ever for the kind of green jobs programme that the Liberal Democrats are promoting, including plans to bring quarter of a million empty homes into use. These are jobs that help communities with better housing and transport, while fighting climate change; and as hands-on jobs, they can’t be exported. That’s good news for the roofers too.

The recession may have caused a fall in new building, but Islington remains one of the most densely populated parts of the UK, so getting the right planning policies is vital. As I’ve blogged before, most of us only get involved in the planning process when a particular proposal comes up that affects us; but by then the planning policies have already been written. Islington’s planning policy framework, the core strategy, is under review.

Now the Council has produced a useful summary of the latest changes proposed following input from various groups in the borough, plus outside agencies like English Heritage. They range from stronger support for independent shops to providing sites for travellers and gypsies.

The core strategy is out for consultation now. Have your say by writing to Freepost, RSEA-CUHA-YYAS, Planning Policy, Islington Council, Upper Street, London, N1 1XR, or via email. Any comments must be received by 5pm on Monday 22 March and will then go on to the Planning Inspector who has the final say on the Islington plans.

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Planning in Islington: let’s get it right!

Even the smallest planning decisions can have a massive impact.

During the Euro elections I heard from one man so frustrated that his change-of-use application was turned down at least 5 years ago that it still affects his voting intentions today. What was routine policy (and technically entirely correct) for the Council, was an unwelcome and life-changing decision for him.

And in the last couple of weeks I’ve met more people with planning on their mind: from an architect enthusiastic about designs for homes, workshops and new open space on an old industrial estate, to the family upset that a neighbour’s controversial extension has got the go-ahead.

Even more distressing was the rejection of plans for a new community centre at St David’s Church on Westbourne Road. The church building, like so many, had been surplus to CofE requirements, and so leased to another denomination, in this case the Greek Orthodox. They have now moved to a new home in Islington, leaving St David’s empty once more. In the interim, a new Anglican congregation had started worshipping in the church hall, and running busy community projects.

Working with the community, the church came up with plans that would bring the old church building back into use, not just for worship on Sundays, but as a place of service throughout the week, including a new home for the fantastic Prospex youth club (they work with some of the most excluded kids in the area). The plans even had hundreds of petition signatures in favour. So what was the problem?

Well, the community centre works have to be financed somehow, and the plan was to sell the current church hall site for housing; mostly private, although with some units for social rent and for the church’s own staff. And this ran up against the local Labour party’s unbending insistence on 50% affordable housing – whatever the context and whatever the planning policies actually say – in part of the borough where they dominate the area planning committee.

Everyone knows we need affordable homes in Islington (and it’s good the LibDem Council is building more). But even if there was a 100% rule there would still not be enough homes to go round.

We need more homes – but also the facilities to make those homes a decent place to live. And that’s why I think Labour’s rejection of the St David’s scheme was such a big mistake. A real benefit has been lost to a community that really needed it – by the very people elected to represent them. And it’s not just me saying that. Hopefully there will be a rethink or an appeal: watch this space.

It’s really important that the planning policy framework is right; yet most people, understandably, only encounter planning policy when their own application or objection is up for decision.

So I thought I’d share this email received yesterday:

Your Neighbourhood, Your Islington, is Islington’s Core Planning Strategy. It sets out our plans for the future of the borough up to 2025. Its aim is to make Islington a better place to live and work. As well as setting out how different parts of the borough might develop, it also sets out Islington’s approach to important issues including how we will seek to improve the built environment, provide for affordable housing and employment spaces, respond to climate change, and provide facilities for our communities.

Over the last year we have sought the views of residents and organisations on these and other issues. We have now produced a first draft of the plan called the Core Strategy Direction of Travel.

You can view the Core Strategy Direction of Travel at: our website, your local library, or the Municipal Offices, 222 Upper Street, N1 1XR

If you would like a paper copy of the plan, or have any questions then please email ldf@islington.gov.uk or call 020 7527 6799.

We would welcome any comments in writing by post or by email. Please send these by post to Planning Policy, 222 Upper Street, N1 1XR , or by email. It would help if you could send any comments to us by Monday 3 August 2009.

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Guardian blog 7 Nov

My latest Guardian blog, covering the US election results, plus poverty and housing in Islington, is now online.

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Greener homes for all

Building greener homes should be a priority. It would help fight climate change and fuel poverty at the same time – and create ‘green collar’ jobs. What’s not to like?

So I was interested to be contacted by the National Housing Federation - who represent housing associations – about their ‘Green Homes Now!’ campaign.

The Conservative government banned local authorities from building new council homes; something Labour have done little to change. So new social housing is virtually all built by housing associations (Islington’s an honourable exception). And the government, who control funding to housing associations, are requiring them to hit high green standards, with 25% fewer carbon emissions than required by current building regulations.

That’s fine; but it’s not fair that private developers don’t have to meet the same standards until 2010. Not only is that a missed opportunity for the homes built in the meantime; but it makes it harder and more expensive for the housing associations to do their job.

If you support the National Housing Federation’s campaign for private developers to build to the same environmental standards and timetable as housing associations, then you can sign their petition here.

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Studio line

What do the stamp duty changes mean for people in Islington?

The Chancellor’s changes mean that for the next year, house buyers will be able to buy homes costing up to £175000 without paying stamp duty. Previously homes under £125000 were exempt. So just for interest, I’ve been looking for local properties that might fall into that £125-£175k gap.

So I checked the property pages of the Islington Gazette. The only property in that range is a studio flat in ‘Hornsey borders’ N7, at £164,950.

Gordon Brown told the press, “Home owners need to know that we will do everything we can to keep the housing market moving”. It must be a very nice studio.

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