Greenwich Council is asking residents what it thinks of its draft Housing and Homeless Strategy – four months after criticism that the old strategy had been allowed to lapse. ANTHONY OKEREKE, its cabinet member for housing, outlines what the town hall is doing – and why you should be taking part.
It was 1997 and my sister’s belongings were stuffed into black bags and placed on our porch. She was asked to leave our family home after her relationship with our parents broke down. She was 16 years old, about to start at Woolwich College, and now she was homeless.
Like many families in Greenwich, I am no stranger to the suffering that comes from family breakdowns. After months of rough sleeping, my sister turned to Greenwich Council for help. She was placed in a short-stay hostel in Forest Hill, and in her own words, “she finally felt she could breathe”. Living in a mixed hostel with nine other people, a council officer taught her and her housemates how to budget and manage their home. She was there for 28 days and then moved to a three-bedroom shared house in Plumstead.
Seeing those closest to you live through the uncertainty and fear that comes from homelessness is painful. No one thinks it will happen to them, but it so easily can. And this is just my experience: in our borough, there are approximately 20,000 people on the waiting list for council homes, with about 3,100 in urgent need – but only 1,199 council homes allocated through our waiting list in 2019/20.
Although we’ve helped prevent a further 8,000 families from becoming homeless since 2014, more work needs to be done.
Like every other borough in London, we are facing an unprecedented housing crisis. While the cost of living has increased, people’s incomes have not kept pace, and many housing options are not financially viable. The median household income in the borough is approximately £30,778, while the market rent for a two-bed property is about half of the average household income before tax, service charges and any expenditure.
Home ownership is even more unaffordable, with the average price being 13 times higher than the average household income.
We are doing everything we can to tackle this crisis. We’re borrowing money, we’re taking a grant from the mayor of London, and we’re building as much affordable and social housing as we possibly can, including 750 new council homes by 2024 through our Greenwich Builds programme. We’re also strengthening our relationship with, and influence over private developers and organisations like Meridian Home Start, a company set up by the Royal Borough of Greenwich to provide high-quality affordable homes for local people who would otherwise find it hard to buy or rent on the open market.
An ambitious five-year repairs programme to improve our existing council homes is also under way. We’ll be focusing on updating old facades, improving safety, refurbishing old kitchens and bathrooms, replacing windows, and making sure our homes are sustainable in order to meet the council’s target of zero carbon by 2030.
These are just some of the many innovative and positive projects and proposals currently being planned to tackle the housing crisis as part of our new draft Housing and Homelessness Strategy, which we’re asking local people to feed back on.
But without a fundamental shift in national policy from central government, the underlying housing crisis will remain.
So, what can be done? Any commitment from central government towards ambitious social housebuilding in areas of high demand would help. However, this doesn’t solve the unaffordability crisis in the UK housing market which has been building for decades. Because there’s been so little building for so long, demand is off the scale compared to supply. We need more innovative solutions to affordable housebuilding, including the use of modern methods of construction and the repurposing of old buildings like factories.
The private rented sector presents another issue. As a local authority, we need to recognise the important role that the sector can play in providing settled homes for people who are experiencing homelessness, as well as how it can help solve the housing crisis. But we also need national reform for private tenancies and a commitment from the UK Government to better protect renters’ rights.
Another huge issue is the support for people living in cladded or unsafe buildings, who are facing financial ruin in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, after Parliament finally voted against protecting them from fire safety costs in April this year. This is truly scandalous – leaseholders who purchased their flats in good faith that the building was safe should absolutely not have to bear these costs. What happens to those who can’t foot the bill?
While there are no council-owned buildings in our borough with dangerous cladding, there are 24 private-sector buildings with ACM – the same cladding as Grenfell. Fourteen of these have completed recladding works, while the remaining 10 have started the removal process. We will continue to work with all building owners to reiterate our position, and support anyone affected in our borough.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, having had a devastating impact on so many people, with the economic fallout leaving millions across the country worrying about how they will pay their rent or mortgage.
The bottom line is that we have a huge inequality issue in this country. There is only so much we can do as a local authority under a government which is fundamentally at odds with making life fairer for everyone. The wake of Covid-19 has only highlighted these inequalities further – inequalities which are simply unacceptable in 2021.
Many Greenwich residents have benefited from the safety net that our council provides. They have relied on our housing service to put a roof over their head, and to help them start a new chapter in their life. I became a councillor because I know first-hand the value of our borough’s housing service, and I want to ensure that the safety net remains in place, when residents need it most. But we cannot do this alone – we need the government to step up and take responsibility to fix the UK’s broken housing system.
Have your say on the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s new draft Housing and Homelessness Strategy at housingstrategygreenwich.commonplace.is.
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