JOHN BIGGS is re-writing history when it comes to social housing in Tower Hamlets say the Independent Group of Councillors. They’ve put a motion on the matter to this week’s Council – but expect Labour Councillors to manoeuvre it off the agenda.
The Indes point out just how difficult it is to find housing in Tower Hamlets. There’s a ten year queue for most social housing and renting privately is financially out of the reach of most of the borough’s population – with buying a home even more of a distant dream.
The previous directly elected mayor – Lutfur Rahman – had two clear priorities for improving housing in Tower Hamlets:
•building affordable homes;
•improving the standard of private properties.
The Independent Councillors say that this strategy has been adopted by John Biggs – but he is trying to take the credit for it rather than acknowledging he is just continuing the work that Mayor Lutfur Rahman began.
Figures from the Department of Communities and Local Government show that between 2010 and 2015, Lutfur Rahman’s Administration built 5,590 social homes. Many of the schemes started by Lutfur Rahman are now being finished under John Biggs’s watch – who is trying to claim the credit for the building that was underway when he took office at his second attempt.
The success of Lutfur Rahman’s Administration was acknowledged by the Government, which was rewarded by generous allocations to Tower Hamlets from the “New Homes Bonus Scheme”. This saw the Council receive £24.2 million in 2015 alone and £53 million in total – the highest allocation in the country. It is the financial rewards received from the hard work of Lutfur Rahman’s Administration that have enabled John Biggs’s Administration to do much of the building it has.
There is one change in approach between the two Administrations. Lutfur Rahman was prepared to see many of the new homes delivered by housing associations rather than by the Council direct. This kept the homes out of the Right to Buy pool, so they were built to keep them available to people on the housing waiting list for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, John Biggs has been prepared to put more emphasis on building Council homes, which can be bought by tenants after three years of occupation. With these newer homes among the more valuable ones in the Borough, and with some estates now seeing 50% of their homes bought by tenants, up to half of the homes John Biggs has planned by 2018 could be lost to the waiting list by the following Council elections in 2022.
John Biggs has recently highlighted the private sector licensing scheme, claiming it as one of his achievements. However, not only was the local scheme the brainchild of Lutfur Rahman’s Administration – it was established by a formal decision of Lutfur Rahman’s Cabinet.
The Independent Councillors’ motion to the Council also raises concern about the development of Whitechapel. Lutfur Rahman’s Administration saw the opportunities for the area coming from the building of Crossrail. When the owners of the current Town Hall decided to demolish the building and redevelop the site on which it stood, Mayor Rahman and his team looked at buying the old Royal London Hospital building for a new Town Hall – saving the Council having to dish out rent to private landlords each year.
The scheme was costed and appraised and agreed, and the team led by Lutfur Rahman and his deputy, Cllr Ohid Ahmed, decided to go ahead with a historic but community-led regeneration of Whitechapel, combining these changes with other local moves such as the sale of the old Post Office, various smaller hospital buildings and the development of Sainsbury’s. These changes were all packaged into a Whitechapel Vision to allow a comprehensive approach through a “local community-led forum of grass-root stakeholders”.
John Biggs initially stalled the scheme to re-examine it before confirming that it was a sound approach to the need to find a new Town Hall. His Administration then abandoned the stakeholders’ forum, allowing local development to become much more piecemeal and harder for residents and local businesses to monitor.
The Independent Councillors have called on the Council to award credit for housing and development in Tower Hamlets where it is due. However, given the track record of the Labour Councillors, who usually use their slender majority to stop any motions tabled by Independent Councillors from being discussed, there has to be little hope of residents seeing an open debate at the Council meeting.
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