As I sat in the Housing Scrutiny Panel meeting last week wondering if a second Labour Councillor was going to turn up to allow us to be quorate (meaning the meeting would actually be official) I did ponder where the Cabinet Member for Housing was. That agenda was a bit sparse but now, having gone through the Cabinet Agenda, I realise the Cabinet Member was probably absent as there were some huge decisions on housing in Greenwich being made this week. The Cabinet Meeting tonight includes decisions on Meridian Home Start’s plans, the Housing and Homelessness Strategy and a £15.8m change to the Housing Capital Programme – if I was a Labour Councillor on the Housing Scrutiny Panel I’d be furious that there was no opportunity to formally discuss these issues in advance.
The whole package represents a substantial change in Council thinking and a massive change in priorities. Some items which we were told were important are now not important at all or much less so reflecting some muddled thinking from the Council. Let’s start with the Housing Capital Programme where major changes in the way the Council wants to spend its money requires a £15.8m cut to the budget agreed only in January 2020. The changes to the Housing Capital Programme mean that the budgets for the following items have been completely cut:-
- Refurbishment of Laundry Rooms like the one on the Strongbow Estate which Charlie and I have just been informed we can’t use for our surgery because of asbestos concerns. Despite being told previously that there were “significant upgrades required to both the facility and equipment” this is now deemed unimportant.
- Ventilation & Plant Room Refurbishment appears to have been completely cut, despite Councillors previously being informed that “These systems are a critical part of the safety for staff and residents and have been identified as requiring replacement and refurbishment.” (6.13)
Similarly the door entry replacement programme has been slashed by 23% and the replacement of galvanised water tanks demolished by 71%. The failure to replace the water tanks is particularly concerning given that in January 2020, Councillors were informed that “there are some potential health concerns if the water supply is corrosive due to its acidic condition” (6.14) but this is apparently not important now. For residents of at least one block on the Strongbow Estate even basic repairs of the tanks would be useful as the variable water pressure has meant that for the last year the supply simply cuts out for minutes at a time, which I have been informed by more than one resident is somewhat inconvenient when you are having a shower.
Secondly, there have to be major concerns over the time it is likely to take for this work to be done. It is billed as a two year programme but we are told it will take at least a year to get started (4.9.4) despite the fact that apparently funding this programme will require substantial rent increases until at least 2024 (p34). Basically Council tenants are being asked to pay upfront for this work and believe that the Council will deliver it on time. Given it has taken 4 years to figure out how to use the Stock Condition Survey completed by Savills in 2017, I am not sure that the average resident can trust the Council as a landlord on this issue. A lot of the funds for this programme seem to come from the 2020-22 programme where the work has not been done. Indeed even the plan before Cabinet makes clear that the majority of residents will be left with substandard bathrooms following the programme – there are apparently 5,671 which need replacing, but this programme will only deal with 1,100 meaning 80% of people who need it will not have their bathrooms replaced.
Lastly, the Council is planning on removing communal areas from blocks across the Borough and replacing them with flats (this is called the Hidden Homes programme). Now it might be that these spaces are no longer needed, but as two of them are in Eltham, I remain concerned at the lack of consultation with residents. The Council is making an assumption that the quality of Council housing is more important than the quantity of communal spaces – they are building over green spaces and now getting rid of communal areas. These seem dangerous precedents to me as it will be hard to go back on these decisions once made.
Overall the new Housing Capital Programme (2022-24) represents a substantial change in thinking from the Council which changes priorities and requires a major change in the capacity of work to be completed. Last year the Council installed 88 new bathrooms but in two years time it will complete 1,100 and it requires quite a leap of faith to believe this will happen. Council tenants and leaseholders are being asked to pay higher rents for a programme which may never be completely delivered.