What is ‘affordable’ housing? Greenwich Council to put forward new strategy

Fred Styles House development, Charlton
This development at Charlton Church Lane is due to be transferred to Meridian Home Start

Greenwich Council is poised to launch a new consultation on how it will try to deal with rising homelessness and the effects of the lack of truly affordable housing.

Notice that a decision will be made on a new housing strategy was posted between Christmas and New Year on the council website, with the document suggesting that the council’s Better Together consultation meetings be used to get the public’s views on the issue.

Since the next round of Better Together meetings will be discussing housing, it would be fair to assume that decision has already been made.

With 17,000 households on Greenwich’s waiting list – up 55% on five years ago – and 575 households in temporary accommodation (the highest in 10 years), there is some urgency, though.

What hasn’t yet been revealed is the planned strategy itself, but the council officers’ report gives an outline of what to expect – noting one key question: what is “affordable”?

Council officers seem to dodge the question in their report: “The Council suggests affordability should be based on a person’s income level and a set maximum proportion of a person’s income which should be spent on housing costs.”

Just how long is that piece of string again?

Meridian Home Start finally gets started

The strategy is likely to seek endorsement for the council’s plans to use its Meridian Home Start spin-off to build new homes.

After a troubled start as a council-owned company, when it was given a handful of homes to manage, charging 80% of market rent, MHS has now been made legally independent of the council. Billed as “an exciting new initiative within Greenwich for working families”, it has been tasked with building homes on three sites – Sandpit Place on the Charlton/Woolwich border, the old Rochester Way Social Club in Eltham, and a site on the Carnbrook estate in Kidbrooke.

Further sites set to be transferred include the former Fred Styles House sheltered accommodation block at Charlton Church Lane and Shepherd Leas in Eltham.

But these won’t be council homes, with Meridian Home Start properties set at a target of 65% market rent – lower than the official definition of ‘affordable’ rent (80%), but higher than the 40%-50% charged by councils. Deputy council leader Danny Thorpe told a council meeting last month that Shepherd Leas would be set at “50%-60%” of market rent.

The advantage of using Meridian Home Start for Greenwich is that its properties are ineligible for right to buy, unlike council new-builds, and it is also free from government restrictions on borrowing.

It will also be worth seeing if Greenwich’s housing strategy has anything to say on the council quietly buying up private properties instead of building new homes of its own – a policy criticised by Conservative councillor Spencer Drury.

Criticism guaranteed – but will it be justified?

The only thing that’s certain about the housing strategy is that it will be criticised. Without a massive change in national policy on providing housing, councils’ room for manoeuvre will always be limited.

And getting it wrong could have immediate political consequences, even in a rock-solid safe Labour borough. Over in Haringey, the furore over the council’s decision to hand over its council housing to a partnership with Elephant & Castle developer Lendlease to generate new income has gone down so badly that the council leadership faces being thrown out in an internal coup following this May’s election.

In Greenwich, much of the recent scrutiny over housing has come from Spencer Drury and his former Tory colleague Eileen Glover. But with the left asserting itself through Jeremy Corbyn-backing pressure group Momentum, and residents organising as Speak Out Woolwich, the level of scrutiny will grow. And all just ahead of a council election.

For now, though, hundreds are stuck in temporary accommodation, and thousands left waiting for a home. For them, can Greenwich deliver, and if so, how much can it deliver? We may have some clues soon.

  • There’s some useful background at item five of this council scrutiny meeting agenda, including some definitions of ‘affordable’ housing, some ways of creating more housing, and what some other boroughs are doing.
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