Last 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
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
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.