When it comes to housing, it takes time to turn things around. But in the last two years, the landscape around council homebuilding has been changing fast.
When we entered City Hall two years ago following Sadiq Khan’s election, we inherited a legacy from the previous mayor of London of zero homes for social rent. Turning that round was made even harder by the lack of any new national funding for social rented housing at all. Money from central government was on offer only for low-cost homeownership – and whilst we wanted to help first-time buyers too, the absence of money to build homes for social rent was shameful.
Yet earlier this year, we launched Building Council Homes for Londoners – the first-ever City Hall programme dedicated solely to council homebuilding. It is funded with money the mayor secured from national government for social rented housing. And, since the elections in May, councils across London have put council housing centre stage.
While City Hall can give leadership and direction, making a real difference relies on what’s happening in local and national government too. So, what has shifted to make this possible?
Two things aligned. First, the change in prime minister after the EU referendum, the rightful soul-searching by ministers after Grenfell, and the fallout from the 2017 general election, all meant that the government could no longer ignore social housing.
Second, new and established council leaders and mayoral candidates in London went into their elections this May with confident and bold policies on building more council homes. Many had been building council housing for many years already, but this year was defined by it being centre stage in manifestos across the capital. Councils were won on this popular appeal to the electorate – one self-evidently crucial for the future of London.
In the three months since those elections, I’ve met with 26 council leaders and mayors – an indicator of the priority now given to council homebuilding in the capital. Some are ready to scale up existing building programmes, while others are taking this chance to create a whole new approach.
For some councils, our programme’s special grant rate of £100,000 for new social rented homes will help get their ambitions underway. For others, being able borrow more, or make better use of Right to Buy receipts through our “ringfence” offer, has been crucial. And for others still, the chance to work together by sharing skills and growing capacity is what will make the difference. Across the board we are working closely together, and there is no shortage of appetite to build the 10,000 new council homes the City Hall programme will support.
All the homes we build will make life better for those Londoners who will be their new tenants. In a few years’ time, a new family-sized council home will mean a 16-year-old has somewhere quiet to study for her GCSEs, while a new one or two-bedroom home might offer a 70-year-old somewhere to downsize where he can still be near his grandchildren.
But beyond making an immediate difference to the lives of thousands of families across London, success will help us make the case for going much further. If we can make a real difference with the limited funding we have, and despite the continued restrictions councils face, just imagine how much more we could do if we had all the powers and resources we need.
Our success will help bolster the calls by the mayor and councils for the government to fully fund the social housing we need, to free councils to build more by removing restrictions and boosting their resources, and to work with City Hall and councils on a London-wide municipal homebuilding programme.
Some members of the government seem to be slowly realising that the mayor and councils are right. But ministers’ steps are painfully slow and woefully inadequate given the urgency and scale of the challenge – as we have seen this week with the glaring omission from their new Social Housing Green Paper of any commitment to build new social housing.
We must make it impossible for them to avoid our fundamental argument: that we will never fix the housing crisis without councils playing a leading role in building the homes Londoners so desperately need.
James Murray is the deputy London mayor for housing and residential development