Tag Archives: Housing

Time to close the Red Door?

14 Jun

By Conor McAuley

On 18 July last year Newham Council’s Strategic Development Committee, after a long discussion, approved a major planning application (No 17/00951/FUL) to build 100 flats in buildings ranging from 2 to 23 floors at London Road E13 and a further 82 flats in buildings up to 15 floors at Valetta Grove E13.  These are two sites sitting on Plaistow Road beside and opposite Plaistow Station.

A total of 182 “residential units”, all to be let at “market rents”, intended for Newham Council’s private renting company Red Door Ventures (RDV) at two locations that would appeal to commuters.

There was considerable public interest in this application and a number of objectors addressed the committee. They were listened to but ignored.

Clearly as Newham Council owned both sites, the complete absence of affordable housing within this application, can only have been deliberate and not the product of some dodgy developer’s “viability assessment”.

Instead Red Door Ventures proposed to deliver 45 affordable units in three “linked sites” at Eve Road E15, Baxter Road/Alnwick Rd E16 and Chargeable Lane E13. These sites were covered by three separate planning applications on the same committee agenda.

This was a device to subvert the planning policy requirement to deliver 50% affordable housing that would otherwise be required. Except of course that 45 units when added to the 182 non-affordable units gives us 227. The four linked planning applications (barely) delivered 20% affordable units.

So this left an affordable housing shortfall of 30% or 68.5 units.

A further device was then employed to help bridge the gap so to speak: the “review mechanism”.

Here I quote directly from the committee report; ‘To ensure that the proposal fully complies with the Newham Core Strategy and London Plan target of 50% affordable housing, a review mechanism is proposed that shall capture any uplift in scheme viability.

Once the ‘Break Even Rental Threshold’ (BERT) has been achieved the Planning Authority will receive 50% of the net additional revenue generated, where the profit level is between 15% and 24.99%, and 70% where profit is above a 25% threshold’.

I trust you have followed the logic so far.

The only real link between the four planning applications is that the sites involved are within the same borough. They are only “linked” in this process to enable Red Door Ventures to avoid having to provide affordable housing on the more valuable site adjacent to Plaistow Station. The “review mechanism” then kicks the remaining shortfall of 65.5 units into the even longer grass.

This was a perversion of the Council’s Planning regime and it was a disgrace that the then Committee Chair, Cllr Ken Clark, allowed these applications to be pushed through in this manner. Indeed, it was Cllr Clark who moved acceptance of the recommendations.

The four planning approvals were then to be wrapped up into a series of S106 Planning Agreements. The Strategic Development Committee decreed that these legal agreements should be completed and signed by 18 January 2018.

Subsequently, in November the Committee moved the completion deadlines to 18 May 2018.

It would appear that these legal agreements have not yet been signed because a further report (item 14) has been tabled on the agenda for the Strategic Development Committee meeting (next week) on 19 June seeking a further extension of the deadlines to 9 November 2018.

The report goes further, to say that if the legal agreements have not been completed, the Head of Planning has delegated authority to refuse the planning permissions.

Surely this is the moment when our elected representatives could signal a sea change in Newham’s housing strategy. It’s the time to end the expansion of Red Door Ventures and to start building genuine affordable and social housing again.

This is not a decision to be delegated to a Council officer.

Temporary housing

29 Sep

From the Newham Recorder:

More people are living in temporary accommodation in the borough than anywhere else in London.

Homelessness data from the Office for National Statistics show 3,956 Newham households were resident in temporary shelter between April 2015 and March 2016.
The figures – the most up-to-date available – also reveal 2,448 households were deemed eligible for action under the Housing Acts, the highest amount in London and second-highest in England after Birmingham.

Newham also had the second-highest number of households accepted as homeless and in priority need – 1,345 – again behind only Birmingham.

Of the households living in temporary accommodation, 79 were in bed and breakfasts, 27 in hostels, 127 in local or housing authority stock, 1,690 in leased private sector property and 2,033 in other properties.

Also included is the ethnicity of homeless households, with 474 black or black British, 396 Asian or Asian British and 314 white.

Meanwhile on Twitter Cllr Jose Alexander points to Red Door Ventures, the council’s for-profit housing company, as an example of how Newham is “tackling housing crises.” (sic)

Yep. Tackling the housing crisis by charging £1,500 a month for a two-bed flat in Stratford.

Landlord news

12 Aug

Chowdhury & Noor

Two bits of good news for Newham’s landlord councillors.

Beckon lead councillor Ayesha Chowdhury has added yet another property to her extensive buy-to-let portfolio. The acquisition of 58 Alma Street, London E15 1QA means she now owns 19 homes in the borough.

And the planning case against Plaistow South councillor Ahmed Noor has been closed. He complied with the terms of the enforcement notice served on him at the end of April.

It remains to be seen if further action will be taken against him for operating a private rented property without a licence.

Baikie Grove

9 Jul

Andrew Baikie

In a press release issued by the council today, Andrew Baikie, Sir Robin’s ‘5-days-a-week’ mayoral advisor for housing is quoted as saying:

We are experiencing an acute housing shortage in Newham and our council housing stock is imperative to helping us tackle this.

Indeed, councillor. Well said.

So it’s mystifying that you are deliberately leaving hundreds of council properties empty on the Carpenters Estate and why you are working with Countryside PLC to sell off ‘surplus’ council homes under the NewShare scheme.

Perhaps you could explain?

Wrong to buy

1 Jul

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that between January 2011 and May 2015 Newham council sold 501 properties under Right to Buy legislation.

These properties had a book value of almost £82 million, but due to statutory discounts the council received just £42 million. 

Analysis of the data shows that the average value of each home sold was £163,224 and the average discount was £79,461, leaving Newham with receipts of just £83,763 per sale.

Sales by postcode were:

Postcode Number Valuation Sale price Discount
E16 94 £14,401,100 £7,189,300 £7,211,800
E12 56 £8,296,500 £3,890,270 £4,406,230
E15 85 £14,586,900 £7,773,458 £6,813,442
E7 45 £7,653,200 £4,092,380 £3,560,820
E6 128 £20,828,995 £10,562,717 £10,266,278
CM13 11 £2,188,400 £1,432,400 £756,000
E13 72 £11,872,350 £5,979,780 £5,892,570
RM13 3 £486,000 £252,300 £233,700
E11 4 £727,000 £346,200 £380,800
E14 1 £245,000 £145,000 £100,000
E18 1 £360,000 £260,000 £100,000
E* 1 £130,000 £41,600 £88,400
Total 501 £81,775,445 £41,965,405 £39,810,040

 * as listed by Newham in the FOI response

Of course, the council can rightly point out that it had no choice but to sell these homes – ‘right to buy’ is the law. But it can’t escape responsibility for other policies that are reducing the stock of social homes in the borough – for example it’s own NewShare scheme to sell off empty council houses on a shared ownership basis and its decision to keep hundreds of properties on the Carpenters Estate empty. Plus, of course, its repeated failure to enforce its own targets for affordable homes in new developments.

With the Tory government determined to expand ‘right to buy’ to housing associations it more vital than ever that the stock of affordable and social housing is increased. Newham has to do everything it can to make sure this happens.

Upton downs

8 Jun

That the leaders of Newham council are arrogant, duplicitous and contemptuous of residents will not come as news to most people. But it is rare that their cynical manipulation of the public for their own ends is quite so fully documented as it is in the case of the Upton Centre.

The centre was closed in December 2014

…after specialist engineers advised that the boilers were no longer compliant and the heating system could not be used. Following the closure, a review of the building has been carried out by independent surveyors and engineers who have established that a significant amount of work would be needed to bring the centre back in to use in the short term, including an overhaul of the heating system as well as a complete rewiring of the electrical system.

Works which would extend the life of the centre by 12 to 24 months are estimated to cost £750,000. Refurbishment to the whole building, which would make it accessible and fit for community use for an additional 15 to 20 years would be in the region of £3.5million.

In April 2015 the council started a “consultation” on the future of the centre. This was clearly rigged to deliver the answer Sir Robin and his chums want to hear – that the centre should be closed and the site handed over for redevelopment.

Perhaps a predictable piece of opportunism in response to an unexpected event? Not at all. A report has emerged that shows this to have been planned down to the finest detail.

That report was written in September 2013 by Graeme Betts, then Newham’s Executive Director for Strategic Commissioning and Community, for a meeting of the now defunct Operational Executive. Mike Law has tried unsuccessfully to extract details of this secretive committee via Freedom of Information requests. According to the replies he got, it is not in the public interest to reveal what was discussed and, in any case, the meetings were not minuted and no record of attendance was ever kept.

The aim of Mr Betts’ report was

…to update Members on progress and timescales for the possible closure of the Upton Centre and to secure possession of the One Love centre in the context of a wider development proposal for the site.

As previously reported there are three issues officers are progressing:

  1. The possible closure of Upton Centre as the level of investment required to maintain a safe and reliable service is unaffordable;
  2. Securing vacant possession of the whole site to allow for a future development; 
  3. Regularising occupation of One Love to ensure it does not affect future development options for the Council.

Having considered the options officers are proposing the following recommendations, subject to Member agreement:

  • If there is unscheduled breakdown of boiler or plant the Upton will be closed whilst officers seek to necessary resources to carry out repair
  • the nursery, within the Upton centre would be provided with temporary heating and access to the site to ensure they can continue to deliver services
  • officers seek to secure 2 year “lease” with 2 year development break clause to ensure vacant possession of the site is obtained
  • officers to continue to work on development options with members prior to a wider consultation on the options with the wider community

With a plan in place to close the centre, the council could then move onto to what it wanted to do with the site. Mr Betts sets out “an initial exploration of the redevelopment option”:

The assumptions as to the potential mix of uses on the redeveloped site are:

  • 44 private residential units (10 x 1 bed flats, 12 x 2 bed flats, 8 x 3 bed flats, 6 x 2 bed houses, 8 x 3 bed houses)
  • 0 affordable housing units (0%)
  • 300 sqm NIA nursery
  • 512 sqm NIA community centre 

The report evaluates three options for how this might be achieved, the last of which is the council doing the work itself via its ‘private rental vehicle’, now known as Red Doors Ventures. This was judged to be riskier, but offered the council the best return and greater control in delivering the project quickly.

All that remained then was to convince the public that this was all in their best interests. The section of the report dealing with ‘Communications Considerations’ is worth quoting at length:

…there needs to be clear and simple messaging around how and why decisions have been made about the centre and future steps. The closure of any community facility is always sensitive and its users and the wider community need to feel they have been kept informed and been part of the process. A key lesson learned from the decision to develop Atherton was the need to have coherent messages to develop the wider community understanding of the council’s vision and also to ensure the council could demonstrate openness in its decision making.  

Once future plans for the Upton Centre are determined, all communications would include reference to the development options and, if appropriate, residents and users invited to input into these options.  

If a decision is made to close the facility due to unscheduled maintenance, communications would focus on the following messages:

  • Financial state of local government finance means Newham has to make tough decisions
  • No final decisions about the site have been made and Newham will consult with residents as options are developed
  • The condition of the building is in a significant state of disrepair
  • There are a range of other facilities that people can access

Unless critical to the timeline for the future of the site, it would be unwise to begin proactive communications regarding the closure of the centre until the future of the site as a whole has been determined. This would avoid creating any unnecessary concern for users. However reactive messages would need to be prepared should the information become public.

The cynicism is breathtaking – don’t tell residents anything until future plans for the site are determined; then tell them no final decisions have been taken. The consultation process is a fig-leaf to persuade residents that they have been kept informed and part of the process.

In the end the boilers at the Upton Centre declined to play their part and failed to ‘unexpectedly’ break down. So the council got in some ‘specialist consultants’ to tell them they were no longer safe or compliant, necessitating the shut down of the heating system and the closure of the centre. That this happened in the middle of winter is no coincidence.

When the outcome of the consultation is published there will be no surprises. The recommendation will be for the Upton Centre to be torn down and replaced with housing for private rent at full market rates. There will be no social housing on the site. And precious little for the local community.

Who wants to be a millionaire?

17 Apr

Ayesha Chowdhury 

Beckon lead councillor Ayesha Chowdhury owns a property portfolio worth in excess of £4 million

On Monday Newham council officers and the police forcibly took back possession of a flat in Stratford that had been occupied by its former tenant and the Focus E15 housing campaign. Jasmin Stone, the most prominent of the campaigners was arrested and later bailed.

It is the latest in a long line of incidents that highlight the chronic shortage of social housing in the borough and the council’s complete lack of interest in those who need it most. When anyone dares to challenge the mayor’s priorities – “developers, developers, developers,” to borrow a phrase – he has no hesitation in sending in the heavies.

The ‘developers first’ policy means that the gleaming glass and steel towers going up in Canning Town, Royal Docks and Stratford contain few, if any, affordable units. Properties are openly marketed to overseas investors with the tagline ‘no social housing’.

With hundreds of council homes being deliberately left empty and new builds aimed squarely at the investment market, the thousands of families on the social housing waiting list have few options. Demand for private rented accommodation has rocketed and rents have soared – along with the housing benefit bill – transferring wealth upwards into the ever-expanding pockets of the rich.

Which is good news for the large number of Newham councillors who are private landlords.

Take Beckton’s Ayesha Chowdhury, for example. She has amassed a portfolio of Newham properties that – based on estimates from property website Zoopla.co.uk – is now worth more than £4 million. Zoopla also provides an estimate of her potential monthly rental income. If all Cllr Chowdhury’s properties are let out at these rates she’ll be pulling in close to £19,000 a month.

  Purchase Price Current Value Increase Monthly rental
82 Downings, E6 £105,000 £238,000 £133,000 £1,100
95 Lonsdale Avenue, E6 £55,000 £165,000 £110,000 £790
6 Truesdale Road, E6 £122,000 £260,000 £138,000 £1,200
100 Park Avenue, E6 £72,000 £185,000 £113,000 £890
199 Tollgate Road, E6 £65,000 £172,000 £107,000 £828
10 Harrier Way, E6 £249,000 £370,000 £121,000 £1,700
27 Trader Road, E6 £198,500 £295,000 £96,500 £1,365
5 Hogarth Close, E16 £185,000 £296,000 £111,000 £1,588
47 Plymouth Road, E16 £140,000 £219,000 £79,000 £868
205 Tollgate Road, E6 £57,500 £152,000 £94,500 £732
18 Eric Close E7 £189,000 £264,000 £75,000 £1,021
96a Plashet Grove E7 £160,000 £188,000 £28,000 £903
5 Chelmsford Close, E6 £225,000 £334,000 £109,000 £1,546
203 Tollgate Road, E6 £160,000 £197,000 £37,000 £950
5a Hogarth Close, E6* £75,000 £195,000 £120,000 £1,000
39 Albatross Close, E6 £191,600 £287,000 £95,400 £1,380
20 Viscount Drive, E6** £205,000 £210,000 £5,000 £1,011
TOTALS: £2,454,600 £4,027,000 £1,572,400 £18,872

* New build – estimated construction cost

** My estimate – actual sale price not yet available

This might be portrayed by some as a story of hard work and a reward for enterprise. But until 2011 Cllr Chowdhury lived in social housing, paying a subsidised social rent while building her private fortune. She only moved into one of her own properties when the story appeared in the national press.

Despite this she was reselected as a Labour candidate for last year’s council election and rewarded by Sir Robin with an extra £6,679 a year as mayoral advisor and lead community councillor.

As the old saying has it, money goes to money.

Affordable housing

21 Jan

ClaptonUltras 2015 Jan 18

Will the council stand up for local people or just let Galliard get away with it? I think we all know the answer to that question.

To rub salt into the wound, the developer is proposing that just 51 of the 838 homes to be built on the Boleyn Ground site will be ‘affordable’ housing. That’s made up of 5 studios, 8 one bedroom flats, 25 two bed units and 13 three bed homes. These will be offered on a shared ownership basis: there will be no affordable homes for rent.

As bad as that seems, things are even worse in Stratford.

CBRE are proposing to redevelop Morgan House – an office block – and part of the shopping centre to provide more than 500 new homes. These will overlook the Olympic Park and provide easy access to both east London’s best connected transport hub and Europe’s largest shopping mall. 

Given the high prices such a prime location will attract, it comes as no surprise that, according to the developer:

There are a number of unique and exceptional site-specific circumstances which result cumulatively in the proposal site being entirely unsuitable for on-site affordable housing provision.

The reasoning is that Newham’s priority is family homes, and a town centre location surrounded by busy roads would not be the right place to house families.

So what about the option of providing affordable homes on another site? That’s not going to happen either.

an initial review of site availability in the area has not identified an appropriate donor site for affordable housing provision. Further, the applicant does not have any suitable sites that could be identified for affordable housing provision.

The only option the developer will consider is bunging the council some cash:

Subject to viability, given the very special circumstances involved with the existing site and emerging proposals, it is considered that a commuted payment towards affordable housing provision would be the most appropriate mechanism for the provision of affordable housing.

Of course once the council has the cash – assuming the viability assessment even requires it to be paid – there’s no obligation to actually spend it on providing affordable housing. It can just vanish into the general pot and pay for whatever the mayor wants.

Council houses not councillors’ houses

7 Oct

Campaigners leaving the Carpenters Estate

Campaigners leave the Carpenters Estate with their heads held high (pic via @hackofalltrades)

Under increasing pressure from a flood of bad press and a Standards Committee investigation that won’t go away, Sir Robin has re-tooled his half-hearted apology to the Focus E15 mums into a column for the Guardian

After a bit of grandstanding about his ‘victory’ in winning back possession of the four perfectly habitable flats he’d left empty for years, the mayor turns his attention to the causes of the housing crisis:

The lack of housing supply, the Conservative government’s barbaric benefit bashing and the private rented sector’s spiralling rents and declining standards are a triple whammy.

Of course, he doesn’t mention his own personal contributions: NewShare, his partnership with Countrywide PLC that will flog off council homes in a ‘shared equity’ scheme; Red Doors Ventures, a council-owned development company that will build 3,500 home for private rent – the majority of them at full market rates; the repeated failure of planners to require developers to deliver social housing; the consistent commuting of section 106 obligations into cash payments that vanish into the general budget instead of being spent on housing; the intentional running down of the Carpenters Estate, leaving hundreds of serviceable homes sitting empty. This list goes on and on.

The mayor also glosses over the contribution of many of his Labour colleagues on council who are active in the private rented sector as landlords. They are getting fat from those spiralling market rents and ever-ballooning London property values.

Ayesha Chowdhury, community lead councillor for Beckton, has a portfolio of 18 properties in Newham, 17 of which are rented out. Ahmed Noor (Plaistow S) lists 6 properties in the register of interests; Unmesh Desai, Cabinet Member for Crime and Anti Social Behaviour, owns 5 properties; Mukesh Patel (Green St E) also has 5, as does Anthony McAlmont, chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee; Rohima Rahman, Forest Gate’s lead councillor, scrapes by with a mere 3 – two she owns and one leased from the council. There are many others who have a couple of properties listed.

As social housing is shut down or sold off and the private sector booms these rentier capitalists are quids in.

Poor Sir Robin: with just one home to his name, must feel a bit left out.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

4 Oct

Pro-social housing demonstrators outside the town hall on Monday (picture via South London RCG)

Last Monday night the world almost stopped turning on its axis. Pigs were seen flying over the Town Hall and dogs stood on their hind legs, walking like men.

For the first time anyone can remember, Sir Robin Wales said sorry.

It is clear to me that the issue of the moving on of residents from the Foyer – specifically in relation to the family groups who had their Supporting People funding removed – was initially handled badly – both by East Thames Housing as their landlord and by Newham Council1who accepted overall responsibility for almost every one of the family groups.

I am frustrated and disappointed that both organisations initially failed to put a tailored process in place for each family to sit down with them, explain the issues and provide them with support as they considered their options for the future. I believe both East Thames Housing and Newham Council should apologise to the former residents of the mother and baby unit for that collective failure and I make that apology this evening.

Of course, this being the mayor, the tone of contrition didn’t last long. He was soon back to blaming everyone else for the appalling mess he and his cronies have created. First, the Tories:

We are under attack from this Tory government. And that means we have to make difficult decisions.

Then the Focus E15 mums:

I am disappointed that the Group has deliberately misled residents, the media and others on the facts of the situation.

And their tactics:

On at least three occasions, the Group turned up at … coffee mornings with the clear intention of disrupting them to make a staged protest, to the detriment of other residents.

Wisely, as it’s the subject of a Standards Committee investigation, he didn’t mention the incident at the Newham Show.

Finally, he turned on those campaigning for more social housing:

The Group has undertaken a number of other direct actions, often with the support of hardened political activists.

Their decision to force the closure of our Housing Options office at Bridge House – our main centre for dealing with homeless residents and others in very vulnerable positions – by occupying the front office was despicable and inexcusable.

But the fact he prefaced this bluster with an apology, however half-hearted, is extraordinary. Something is going on.

First of all, there have been changes to the Labour Group on council. While the majority of councillors are still gutless, unprincipled creeps and money-grubbing careerists, there is now a group of councillors who are prepared to challenge Sir Robin. Perhaps not openly and in public – the façade of party unity must be preserved – but in one-to-one meetings and within Group questions are being asked. Hands are being raised to vote against Sir Robin’s latest wheeze. The strong-arm tactics to shut people up are no longer guaranteed to work. Sometimes Sir Robin will need to bend a little.

The more important factor though is his own political ambition. Newham is not enough: Sir Robin wants to be Mayor of London in 2016. And to be mayor he must first be Labour’s candidate.

The past few weeks have been deeply damaging to the carefully-cultivated Wales brand. Never mind the social media shitstorm the Focus E15 campaign has stirred up, it’s led to critical articles in the Guardian and the Independent – just the sorts of newspapers the London Labour ‘selectorate’ is likely to read. What they want is a candidate who will wage war on homelessness and poverty, not on the homeless and the poor. Right now, Sir Robin is being shown up as exactly what they don’t want: an arrogant, out-of-touch, middle-aged white man who’s more interested in what wealthy developers want than what ordinary Londoners need. And someone who’s happy to bully anyone that dares get in their way.

It might not come naturally to him, but Sir Robin might have to get used to saying sorry!