'We opened our doors to the media to shine a light on social housing'.

'We opened our doors to the media to shine a light on social housing'.

Guest blog by Cllr Kieron Williams, Cabinet Member for Housing & Modernisation, Southwark Council.

Over the past two years, Southwark Council has been working with Channel 4 on a six-part documentary, Council House Britain, to shine a light on the work of our housing department and the incredible effort our teams go to in order to support our residents with their varied housing needs.

Southwark’s council homes are one of the greatest strengths of our borough. We remain the largest local authority landlord in London and one of the largest in the country, responsible for more than 53,000 households and over 200 estates. This amounts to 40% of the borough’s housing and requires a continuous and gargantuan effort to maintain. We receive more than 1,700 requests for repairs every week and invest £21m every year in maintenance alone. This is to say nothing of our £1m-pilot Great Estates Programme, to empower residents to ensure all our estates are clean, safe and cared for.

But for all our efforts, Council House Britain will not shy away from displaying many of the challenges local authorities face in order to provide genuinely affordable, secure and safe housing for our residents. This is the key reason why we committed to this partnership with Channel 4. Whether it is fire safety, pest control, or simply finding housing for those who need it most, this show will give viewers a first-hand view of how hard our staff work, in often impossible situations, with grace and determination to do the best for all those who approach the council for their housing needs.

Publicly-owned housing is a bedrock of civilised society. We need genuinely affordable and secure homes, where families know they can put down roots, educate their children without having to move them from school to school, and build local communities and support networks that we all need in life. Coronavirus (COVID-19) has reminded us all just how important it is to have a good home.  

We know that public housing and public health are two sides of the same coin, and that low-quality housing has clear negative impacts on families’ physical and mental health, costing the NHS an additional £1.4bn per year. We also know the private market has long since been failing to deliver decent homes that many people on low incomes can afford. In Southwark the average cost of a private rented two-bed property is over £24,000 a year, more than many families bring home. Contrast that with around £100 per week for a council home. It is unsurprising then that demand is sky-high: Southwark has a social housing waiting list of 13,000 households, including the hard reality of 3,000 children growing up in temporary accommodation.

However, for all its importance, successive governments have failed to invest in building the council homes we clearly need. Across Britain council housing continues to disappear at an alarming rate, with 170,000 council homes lost nationally in the last decade alone.

In Southwark, we are determined to reverse that trend. We have one of the most ambitious council home building programmes in the country – delivering 11,000 new council homes by 2043 – with 2,000 already being designed or built across 70 sites around our borough. However, even with the lifting of the borrowing cap, we know that without further national support we may find a significant gap in our housing budget as we progress through this programme.

Annually, the government ploughs nearly £21bn into the private rented sector in the form of housing benefit. However, even with this investment, the vast majority of recipients in Southwark and across London find that this cannot cover the costs of inflated private rents. Many of these households are then forced to apply for temporary accommodation or homelessness support, which in turn puts another significant pressure on the public purse. Shelter’s ‘Vision for Social Housing’ report details key steps to upend this self-perpetuating downward spiral, and how initial investment in a national social home building process can pay for itself over the long term.

However, another crucial issue around our capacity to meet demand is not simply money, but power. There is a limit to how much local authorities can pay for land upon which we would be able to deliver new homes. However, the broken land market means that private owners, speculators and developers can demand whatever price they want for land that could otherwise be better used for the public good. We have long argued that a change in the law is required to rebalance power towards public bodies, including contributing to Shelter’s recent ‘Grounds for Change’ report into land reform.

Instead, it is entirely possible that we will find ourselves moving even further in the wrong direction when it comes to provision of genuinely affordable and secure social homes. Changes to permitted development rights risk broadening the scope for low quality, over-priced properties from unsuitable office blocks. Further proposed reforms within the government’s ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper could see an end to ‘Section 106’ contributions, which are often the only requirement on private firms to deliver genuinely affordable social rent homes within their developments. There is a very real risk that power will continue to shift away from local authorities and the communities they represent, as the law entrenches the interests of private profit over public good.

Meanwhile, on the ground, housing officers like Charmain and members of our pest control teams like Andy, who you will come to know over the next few weeks, will continue their vital work to support residents come rain or shine. In watching this programme, I am hopeful that the public will look at the hard work and sacrifices residents and staff take to make ends meet, and see that we need real changes if council homes are to thrive.

The first episode of the weekly series airs at 9pm on Thursday, 3rd September and you can share the trailer here. Join the discussion online using #CouncilHouseBritain and #LoveCouncilHousing