Putting tenants in the driving seat

My housing “career” started 40 years ago in the London Borough of Camden. The Chair of Housing was Ken Livingstone and the Director was the legendary William Barnes.

Not only were Camden building 3,000 council homes a year, they also had a well-entrenched structure for resident engagement.

Five District Management Committees comprising councillors and resident groups exercised devolved decision-making over local improvements and investment.

The DMCs also contributed to strategic and policy debates. I left Camden in 1987 but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the DMC system is still running, forty years later. It’s clearly a successful model.

But Camden is sadly the exception to the rule. Some landlords make genuine attempts at resident involvement, others throw in a few gestures, many have cut budgets.

Continue reading

Estate regeneration: the case for residents’ ballots

The news that Sadiq Khan will give residents a veto over regeneration schemes on social housing estates will be welcomed by the 350,000 Londoners who might be affected by plans to demolish their homes. Regeneration of social housing estates has been a hugely divisive issue in London. The likely collapse of the Haringey Development Vehicle is only the latest in a long history of controversial demolish and rebuild schemes.

The Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle is one of the most infamous, where 1,194 social rent homes (typically let at 30 to 50 percent of local market rents) were demolished. In its place 2,700 new homes were built but only 82 were social rented. Many of the remaining properties were sold off plan to overseas investors or let at rents that were unaffordable to people on low incomes. Continue reading

It really is time for a Green Belt rethink

I moved to London in late 1978, just as the Winter of Discontent kicked off, to work as a housing trainee for the London Borough of Camden. Ken Livingstone was chairman of the housing committee and the legendary William Barnes was the borough’s director of housing. A Safari-suited Ken would drive around the borough with a sheaf of estate agent particulars, looking at street properties to buy.

Whole streets of Georgian and Victorian terraces were snapped up. Housing Action Areas and General Improvement Areas were set up to tackle slum landlords. Back then, Camden was building 3,000 council homes a year: high quality homes let at low rents, designed by in-house architects, much of it the most innovative social housing in the country. It was truly a golden age. Continue reading

Orwell at Sixty Eight

This week marks the 68th anniversary of George Orwell’s death. He died alone, from a massive lung haemmorhage in a private room in University College Hospital in the early hours of the 21st January 1950. He was just 46 years old.george_1417323c

I first came across Orwell when I was 17. I was browsing in the school library one wet winter afternoon when I found a scruffy Penguin paperback of Down and Out in Paris in London” (I still have it, yes, I liberated it, I confess). The prose instantly captivated me. It was detached and objective, and yet compassionate and empathetic. This writer had clearly suffered alongside the oppressed workers of the subterranean Paris kitchens and the inmates of the London doss houses.

Continue reading