Vincent Square Councillor David Harvey responds to Labour-led Westminster Council's budget at Full Council this evening.
Lord Mayor, There are two components to this budget:
First, in housing as everywhere, we must thank every officer working in the service and every councillor who gets involved in housing, Cllr Begum too. Housing in London is a vast challenge that threatens the continued capacity of this city to be a growth engine for the UK. There are no simple answers.
But, there’s a hidden elephant. That’s an 18,000-word Labour manifesto which, as I have said before, strains the art of the possible, Oh that’s Ok the miracles of central planning.
Pledge after pledge that could become a game of political Whack-a-Mole, stretching budgets to tick boxes, combined with a game of twister as you try and meet even more.
You will need to do less than you have pledged to do it well.
The pursuit of realistic and attainable policies in housing and regen touches on currencies we don’t measure in this budget – trust, well-being and happiness.
There are risks in the administration’s budget and policy which threaten those currencies. When housing is so tough how could there not be?
Labour’s manifesto promised homes for key workers, its future of Westminster commission has already called “for a review of the lettings policy for intermediate rent homes to make an effective key worker housing scheme”.
Yet already across the Ebury, Western Gate, Luton Street, Ashford, Luxborough, Carlton Dean and Torridon schemes some 200 key worker homes have been slashed back to 49. On Ebury an 85% cut. That’s likewise the clear intention for the future elsewhere.
Teachers, nurses junior doctors, planners, court staff, charity workers, police, fire workers – what two things that these roles have in common, they serve the people of Westminster and your decision so far on intermediate housing tells them that we don’t want them to live in the city they serve. That is not a key worker policy, that’s an elbow in the ribs policy.
Secondly, you aim to maximise the number of social homes built in Westminster. It’s a noble aspiration. The 2005 Westminster Housing commission, cross-party, open, crossbench led by Lord Best former chair of the Rowntree Trust concluded this would never be entirely possible, long-term families and new arrivals will always want to live here.
You have to ask more and think hard about the quality of life of those living in our social housing. Your proposal to buy hundreds of new homes in temporary accommodation, I understand this means somewhere between East Ham and West Ealing is speculative with financial and policy hazard risks that we will watch, but I ask again about the communities people will live in and Prof Richard Layard whose work on quality of life and happiness has rapidly been espoused by Sir Keir Starmer might well challenge the bricks and mortar don’t bring a full and happy life it’s what goes with them that you must set out.
Then your 7% rent increase. Last year the party opposite delivered a good impression of a hair-tearing chorus of mourners. Yes you have doubled the size of the hardship fund for those most in need £1 million but many of my residents in social housing know or believe it’s not for them, despite tough times, they would rather have had the predictability of the smaller rent increase. My challenge to you is that £1 million is good, getting out of the door is how this policy will be judged, it cannot just rest in the bank.
You promised improvements in the repair service, instead as Councillor Chamberlain has put it so well, residents simply believe the service is getting worse, and residents want results.
And an externally advised consultation framework that would have reached across and into our city almost uniquely in London and our social housing abandoned and a year lost. But they have delivered our proposals to increase housing officer numbers.
Of course, the proposals are all sitting with the Future of Westminster Commission secret commission.
And as yet none of those I come across in a community in Westminster Housing seem to have been approached, perhaps it is so secret that even they don’t know.
As you look at how this commission is running, have a quiet look at the Nolan Principles of Public Life and ask yourself if the Future of Westminster Commission quite meets the challenge of transparency.
And finally leaseholders, they are worried.
With no information made available before this meeting, they don’t know what their service charges are going to be increased by this year?
Actually, they deserve the protections of the promised leaseholders charter, particularly with a second mortgage creating major works bills on the way.
Lord Mayor, for tenants and leaseholders in Westminster housing, for key workers, the fairness called for in this administration’s manifesto is already starting to fray at the edges.
Time to listen to residents, not just talk about it.