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Southwark – landlord and place-shaper Matthew Warburton - 26/10/2012

southwark_300Last week's publication of the report of the independent commission on the future of the 40,000 council homes in Southwark, headed by Jan Luba QC, attracted media attention by offering three scenarios for the future, one of which involved halving stock numbers over the next 30 years, an option the council leader was quick to reject.

But there is much more to the commission's report than the headlines might suggest. Its 85 pages repay the effort of reading because Southwark's housing story is not just fascinating in its own right but because the challenges Southwark now faces are like those faced by many other places - only bigger.  

Reading about Southwark is like putting a magnifying glass to other places, helping to clarify challenges and choices, and their long-run implications. As Southwark's Leader Peter John said, the report "makes clear the nature of the extent of the housing time-bomb this country faces".

With 39,000 rented council homes, and 16,700 leasehold properties, Southwark is London's largest social landlord and responsible for nearly half the homes in the borough. But a quarter of council homes are in high-rise blocks and nearly a third were still below the decency standard in 2011.

Housing management costs are high and fire-fighting urgent maintenance needs has consumed so much attention and resources that preventative investment has taken a back seat for many years. HRA self-financing provides the spur and opportunity to take a longer view.  

But making the most of the new opportunities available, concludes the Commission, requires a far more business-like approach to long-term investment and managing the stock than is provided at the present time.

Behind the strategic choices offered to the council by the Commission lies the tension between the imperative to run council housing in a more business-like way, and the council's aspirations for Southwark as a borough of mixed and diverse communities.

 

Reducing the council housing stock to 20,000 through sales and transfers would release the resources to improve the remaining stock but lead to a significant loss of social housing and with it the kind of households that rely on social housing. Over time, Southwark would become a different place, communities and neighbourhoods would change radically.

No community can expect to stand still, especially in London, but the impact of a radical divestment of stock would be so far-reaching that one can understand why the council has balked at it. But the same tension is evident on a smaller scale in several places in the report.  

Redevelopment of the massive Aylesbury and Heygate estates has been a priority for the council and is now well under way. Although the council has been able to give decanted tenants a right to return once regeneration is complete, scheme financing and the desire to create more mixed communities will lead to a net loss of around half the social homes formerly provided.  

Elsewhere, the report suggests that it may make sense for the council to dispose of street property because it is more expensive to service, but this may have the effect of removing social housing from areas which formerly enjoyed a mix of tenures.

Southwark faces some hard choices. The easier road for council housing as a social business may be a road the council as place-shaper and housing strategist is not prepared to take.  

But therein lies a real advantage of council housing over other options for social housing provision - Southwark is able to make such choices because it is both landlord and housing strategist.  It can plan for the future confident that both roles are shaped by the same long-term vision and objectives.

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