Councils key to fulfilling the promise of the Addison Act

Councillor Eleanor Southwood, Cabinet Member for Housing & Welfare Reform, writes:

It’s been a chequered hundred years for council house-building. The promise of safe, secure homes on a grand scale, heralded by the Addison Act in 1919, looks like something of a false start.

A centenary on, we have over 2000 families in Temporary Accommodation in Brent (North West London) and waiting twenty years is not uncommon. Hundreds of thousands of people are barely managing in expensive, insecure and poor quality private rentals.

Temporary Accommodation is expensive for councils. But the human cost of families not knowing how long they will stay in one place or, worse still, sharing bathrooms and kitchens with others in poor quality B&Bs for a prolonged period, is incalculable.

We have a moral duty to provide suitable, permanent homes. Stability is crucial for well-being, for success in work and makes the difference for children who have the chance to thrive, not just survive.

Councils like Brent, who continue to welcome people from around the world, owe it to both newer and more established communities to start building again. If we are serious about nurturing vibrant, economically inclusive mixed communities, we must also take seriously the importance of council housing in making that possible.

Councils are also uniquely positioned to ensure local housing markets deliver what is actually needed. Private developers and Housing Associations are part of the mix, but, in areas like ours with demand for larger, family-sized homes, we cannot rely on a market driven by commercial viability and profitability to provide what our residents need.

Further Government support on grants for building is essential. Whilst removal of the HRA cap is helpful, it is unlikely to make a significant difference. Maintaining older and less efficient stock is costly and managing the existing funding shortfall resulting from rents being artificially low in recent times is challenging.

We’ve got ambitious plans in Brent to drive a renaissance in social housing by building 1000 council homes over the next five years: a programme funded by us to the tune of £300m and supported by over £65m in grant funding from the Greater London Authority (GLA).

One resource we do not have in abundance is land. Infill sites will feature heavily in our programme and this creates disruption and inconvenience for local residents, with little obvious advantage to them.

Engagement is crucial and requires time and commitment. Selling the idea of more council homes is easy, but expecting residents to embrace disruption in such close proximity is quite an ask. Genuine and early involvement in designs and support to access funding for community projects to enhance the area can encourage buy in. Investing in this makes all the difference – and we have learnt a lot with our early developments. 

When land is at a premium, our ability as councils to actively manage the local market is vital. This includes keeping close to local Housing Associations and larger developers, sharing our plans and identifying opportunities for closer collaboration. The commercial skills and confidence needed to do this is a relatively new skill set in local government and we need to be ready to invest appropriately.

Delivering council housing at scale will test our capacity, skills and approach. It’s an uncertain time for house building generally and following through on our ambitions is going to require partnerships that are equipped to manage risk and innovation that challenges traditional ways of working.

In 2020, Brent has the honour of being London Borough of Culture. Much of the creative and cultural life we enjoy has its roots in the passions and heritage of people who live or grew up in Brent’s council homes. Without them we would not be who we are.

The road from the Addison Act to the social housing crisis gripping our country has been a bumpy one. As we embark on a new era of council housing fit for the 21st century, councils once again have an opportunity to fulfil those early promises and to show local government at its best.