Why is LBWF so poor at delivering ‘affordable housing’, particularly genuinely ‘affordable housing’?

A previous post (see links below) examined LBWF’s recent performance over ‘affordable housing’ (AH).

It noted that though the word ‘affordable’ is vague and often used confusingly, what’s referred to as AH in fact encompasses housing let at four different rent levels, two, called Social Rent and London Affordable Rent, specifically designed so as to be genuinely in reach of the less well off.

And it went on to show that from 2012-13 to 2020-21, LBWF had fallen far short of its long-term and often stated promise that 50 percent of housing completions would be ‘affordable’; and, worse still, Social Rent and London Affordable Rent completions in Waltham Forest were a mere 5 per cent of all new builds.

Moreover, adopting a comparative perspective, it revealed that in the sub-period 2016-19, the borough’s Social Rent and London Affordable Rent completions were below the levels achieved in 20 of the 31 other London boroughs.

What follows attempts to establish the causes of these outcomes, and starts with a look at how LBWF engages with developers.

Currently, LBWF owns 9,699 properties to rent, all fully occupied, and has a waiting list of 10,426 families, one of the biggest in London, so it has compelling reason to want to up its game.

But, of course, with government policy being as it is, LBWF does not have the wherewithal to build much itself, and consequently is dependent on persuading developers to include an AH element in their commercial projects.

At first sight, LBWF seems well placed to be able to do this.

True, developers are not particularly well disposed to AH simply because they make little or no money from providing it, and in fact habitually argue that anything more generous than the absolute minimum will diminish returns, and perhaps threaten viability. 

But LBWF controls the planning process, and can impose any target it chooses; while it also has access to government and City Hall grants designed specifically to sugar the pill.

In theory, therefore, LBWF should be able to get its own way.

However, it hasn’t worked out like that.

Currently, LBWF has two medium term strategic priorities that are particularly relevant.

One is to develop various hubs, most obviously the Walthamstow Mall, which, it asserts, will modernise the borough and give residents a better experience.

The other, as a council spokesman recently told Local Democracy Reporter Josh Mellor, is to cope with ‘“demographic pressures and further planned reductions in government funding”’, by ‘“growing our [council] tax base”’, that is, encouraging the kind of building that will attract in new, and hopefully affluent, residents and businesses.

And as is immediately obvious, in both these endeavours, developers play a pivotal role, which explains why successive LBWF Leaders, particularly the now departed Clare Coghill, have spent so much time and effort in networking with them, and making sure they feel valued.

The upshot is that in the council as a whole there is a bias towards keeping developers happy.

The results are predictable.

LBWF will point to a few individual cases where it has stood firm, or negotiated what it claims are beneficial trade-offs, such as the one described to the Housing Scrutiny Committee in February 2022:

The Leyton Green Road scheme…is delivering 47 units, all for private sale. This is because it has also delivered Children’s Social Care facilities. The social care facilities have been delivered upfront and the private sale units will cross-subsidise the cost of delivering the facilities. Private sale is required to minimise the financial impact on the Social Care budget’. 

But in general, and over time, the data cited at the outset of this post does not deceive. It is the developers who have sought and been granted primacy. 

However, while it is fair to say that the Town Hall leadership bears much of the responsibility for this situation, the fact that others have either colluded or looked away is also part of the story.

Take LBWF’s rank and file councillors. Analysis of various scrutiny committee minutes from 2018 onwards shows that, to their credit, Cllrs Connor, Moss, and Siggers (now retired) regularly asked questions about AH, and/or criticised its under-supply. On the other hand, it is notable that many of their colleagues remained silent, perhaps indifferent, perhaps confused about the different ‘affordable’ categories, or, in the case of the Labour benches, perhaps scared of upsetting the Leader and thus losing their special allowances.

One telling illustration of the pervasive priorities is the fact that between January 2019 and February 2022, the Housing Scrutiny Committee discussed private sector property issues three times, AH just once.

Other evidence is equally damning.

Developers who seek planning permission supply LBWF with viability assessments, which justify (amongst other things) their provision of AH, alongside their likely costs and overall financial returns.

Subsequently, as the building phase proceeds, LBWF councillors have the power to call in these assessments and check whether the figures still stack up, and the council hasn’t been short changed.

In the period 2017-21, call ins occurred on a mere four occasions, and there was only one instance when more AH was then required.

Beyond the Town Hall, discussion has been mixed. On the positive side, the local journalist Michelle Edwards has written numerous articles over the years about AH, particularly estate regeneration; articles in the Waltham Forest Echo (especially those by Mr. Mellor) have greatly illuminated council decision-making; and various activists in Walthamstow and Lea Bridge (amongst others) have fought valiantly against the inequities of particular schemes. 

But the three main political parties have largely avoided the issue, and where civil society organisations have become involved, their input (to put it kindly) has not necessarily helped.

Take Waltham Forest Citizens (WFC), ‘an alliance of 11 member organisations – schools, colleges, churches, and mosques – representing 12,500 people’.

At a specially convened public meeting in May 2019, WFC secured a commitment from Ms. Coghill and Simon Miller (the then Leader and Cabinet Member for Economic Development, respectively) that LBWF would ‘build 2,800 social rent homes by 2022’, which the audience understandably greeted with acclaim. 

One of WFC’s most prominent luminaries enthused: ‘“Our housing system is in crisis…The commitment of Waltham Forest Council to build 2800 homes for social rent is the sort of radical response we need…we are glad that the Council is taking a bold approach to one of the key issues affecting local people”’.

A WFC press release went further and stated that ‘Waltham Forest Council currently has one of the most radical house-building programs in London’.

But, unfortunately, this was all just wishful thinking.

LBWF figures show that, in the five years prior to 2019, social rent housing provision in Waltham Forest from all sources increased by an average of 25 units (flats and houses) per annum; while after the WFC meeting, the comparative annual outputs were 85 and then 20, with that for 2022 yet to be released.

Needless to say, COVID’s impact needs to be factored in. But even with a free run, whether LBWF possessed the capability to reach the target that the councillors had promised, and WFC so vocally celebrated, seems very doubtful.

After all, that would have necessitated it building c.1,300 units in two successive years, i.e. 15 times the 2019 total, twice over.

Asked to comment in April 2022, a WFC spokesperson seemed only concerned about negative publicity, repeatedly stressing that any reference to past events should not be too critical ‘because it is difficult to organise people’.

In conclusion, for those who believe that AH, and especially its genuinely ‘affordable’ variant, is not just a need but a necessity, and it is the job of local authorities to hold the ring against developers, the story recounted here will seem depressing.

Whether the future brings change is difficult to predict. The fact that many boroughs in London, both Conservative and Labour, have outperformed LBWF demonstrates that there are alternative models to follow, and a change of direction is at least potentially possible.

On the other hand, it is also evident that the legacy of past Leaders remains entrenched, and, as the recent history of the Walthamstow Mall scheme shows, developers still often call the shots.

It’s rumoured that, after the recent elections, there are now more independently-minded councillors, particularly on the Labour benches, than ever before.

If that is true, it will be interesting to see whether they start flexing their muscles.

Related Posts

LBWF’s flagship Blackhorse Yard ‘affordable’ housing scheme teeters, as developer Swan Housing steps away

LBWF housing scandal: just 5 per cent of the new homes built in Waltham Forest since 2012 were classified as ‘genuinely affordable’…and this from a Labour council!

Ex-Leader of LBWF Cllr. Clare Coghill joins the board of private sector housing provider Square Roots: cue furore

LBWF launches a £40m. programme to upgrade the fire safety of its social housing provision, but questions remain as to why this wasn’t done years ago

Private Eye reports the Waltham Forest fire safety scandal

London Borough of Waltham Forest:  ‘a property empire with a sideline in local government’?*