Monday 15 November 2021

Brent’s affordable housing needs – is this “answer” acceptable?

 Guest Post by Philip Grant in  a personal capacity

Brent’s future flats at Wembley High Road, from the plans approved in February 2021.


On 13 August, Martin published an article I had written about Brent’s plans for Council homes in its Wembley Housing Zone. This set out why the Cabinet should question the recommendations made to them by Council Officers, particularly the lack of any social housing provision, and why it was proposed that two-thirds of the 250 flats and maisonettes in the Council’s Cecil Avenue scheme would be handed over to a developer for private sale. 


I sent a document copy of my article to all members of the Cabinet, for their consideration before their meeting. None of them replied, and on 16 August they accepted the Officers’ “preferred delivery option” for the developments at Cecil Avenue and Ujima House.


As I’d not received a reply from the Lead Member for Housing, Cllr. Eleanor Southwood (or any of her Cabinet colleagues), I raised this matter again with her when she did answer another housing matter which I’d written to her about [Brent’s “secret” Council Housing projects and the Council’s response]. I emailed her about the Council’s Cecil Avenue proposals on 19 September, with a copy to her Regeneration colleague, Cllr. Shama Tatler, and Brent’s Strategic Director for Regeneration, Alan Lunt. 


Cllr. Southwood responded on 23 September, writing: ‘Dear Mr Grant, just acknowledging your email, which I will respond to substantively shortly.’ Despite a reminder to her on 8 October, I did not receive any response, either from her, Cllr. Tatler, or any Council officer on their behalf.


As I believe this is a matter of some importance, I was not prepared to let it drop. On 16 October, I submitted a Public Question, to be answered at Brent’s Full Council meeting on Monday 22 November:-


Question to the Lead Member for Regeneration, Property and Planning:-

New Council Homes at Cecil Avenue, Wembley.


Brent Council has an urgent need for new Council homes, and has accepted the Brent Poverty Commission recommendation that more social rented housing should be a priority.


Brent Council owns the vacant former Copland School site at the corner of Cecil Avenue and Wembley High Road, and since February 2021 has had full planning permission to build 250 flats and maisonettes on this site.


Yet, at its meeting on 16 August 2021, Brent's Cabinet approved a 'preferred delivery option' that included only 39% affordable housing for this development, with less than a quarter of the total homes being rented at London Affordable rent levels (not Social rents), the balance of the affordable housing being at Intermediate rent levels or for shared ownership. Under this 'preferred delivery option', the majority of the homes at the Council's Cecil Avenue site would be sold privately by a 'developer partner'.


At the same meeting, Brent's Cabinet also resolved: 'To delegate to the Strategic Director of Regeneration & Environment, in consultation with the Lead Member for Regeneration, Property & Planning, the decision on alternative development scheme proposals and procurement routes, if procurement of the preferred option was unsuccessful in relation to the Sites.'


My questions are:


1) Given Brent's urgent need for social rent housing, why is Brent Council not proposing to build all 250 of the homes at Cecil Avenue as affordable rented Council housing?


2) As, since 16 August, the GLA has approved a grant to Brent Council of around £111m under its 2021/26 New Affordable Homes programme, to be used mainly for social rent housing, will the Lead Member, in consultation with the Strategic Director of Regeneration & Environment, now recommend that Cabinet changes its mind, and approves alternative proposals to make the Council's Cecil Avenue scheme 100% affordable housing?

The answers from Lead Members to Public Questions are published in advance of the Council meetings, as part of the agenda package. This is Cllr. Shama Tatler’s answer to the two points which I raised in my question:



1) Brent Council’s redevelopment of council-owned Cecil Avenue and Ujima House sites as part of the Wembley Housing Zone programme together proposes 50% affordable housing. However, because it is vitally important to ensure the long term sustainability of the Housing Revenue Account (which ultimately would be responsible for repaying loans secured to deliver new housing) it is not financially viable to deliver all 250 homes at Cecil Avenue as socially rented housing. 


2) Brent Council’s £111.7m GLA grant under the 2021-26 New Affordable Homes Programme is separate from the Wembley Housing Zone programme, and allocated to deliver an additional 701 socially rented homes across the Borough.


The response from the Lead Member is brief, and ignores much of the detail that my question was about!


Cllr. Tatler writes that Cecil Avenue and Ujima House together will provide 50% affordable housing. She doesn’t say that NONE of this will be Council housing at social rent levels, which is what homeless families and people on the Council’s waiting list desperately need. 


Ujima House is expected to provide 54 homes, all at London Affordable rent levels. Of the 250 new homes on the Cecil Avenue site, only 98 will be “affordable”, with 152 handed to a developer partner for private sale (‘to cross subsidise the affordable housing and regeneration of the area’). Of the 98 “affordable” Council homes, only 37 will be at London Affordable rent levels, with the other 61 as “intermediate housing” (‘either shared ownership or intermediate rent’).



The Wembley Housing Zone sites.


I realise that Council housing provided through the Housing Revenue Account must have long-term financial sustainability. The expected rental income over the period of the loan borrowed to pay for the homes (usually sixty years) must be sufficient to pay the interest on that loan, and to repay the capital sum. But with interest rates as low as they are ever likely to be, I find it difficult to understand why this Wembley Housing Zone development could not be financially “sustainable”, especially as the report to Cabinet on 16 August said that: ‘the GLA have also agreed in principle an additional £5.5m grant to deliver the scheme.’


It all comes down to “viability” (and we know from planning applications that the financial experts who developers employ can come up with any figure for viability that their client wants, in order to reduce the amount of affordable housing they have to include in their plans!). The viability of Brent’s Wembley Housing Zone scheme is, of course, known only to Cabinet members and the Senior Officers advising them. It is hidden away from the rest of us in a document named “Appendix 5: WHZ internal financial appraisal summary (exempt)”.


Cllr. Tatler writes that ‘it is not financially viable to deliver all 250 homes at Cecil Avenue as socially rented housing.’ But Brent is not delivering ANY socially rented housing at Cecil Avenue. Surely it would be financially viable to deliver at least some!


But, fear not, with the money from the GLA’s 2021-26 programme Brent promises ‘to deliver an additional 701 socially rented homes across the Borough.’ Around 300 of these might be provided through the “infill” of part of the open space beside the St Raphael’s Estate. More would be from the “infill” of (green!) spaces on existing Council estates, together with “airspace” developments on top of blocks in these. There is also an opportunity for ‘New Build for Rent in South Kilburn’ (Granville Park?).


Having asked a Public Question, I am allowed to ask a supplementary question at the Council meeting on 22 November. I’m not able to be present at that meeting myself, but hope that someone (I have asked the Mayor if she would be kind enough to do so) can ask it on my behalf. I’ve not made up my mind exactly what to ask, so if you have any (polite) suggestions, please feel free to make them as comments below, during the next couple of days.


Philip Grant.




Unknown said...

Do you know who the developer is? It would be interesting to know whether Brent council continues to work with those developers implicated in the building safety crisis.

Moreover, I don't see any mention of the cllrs for Wembley Central ward in your post. I know from personal experience they don't care about their constituents but it would be interesting to know what their position is.

Philip Grant said...

Dear Unknown (15 November at 17:17),

I don't known which developer Brent will choose to be its development partner, but don't think they have entered into a contract yet.

By coincidence, I have submitted an FoI request today, to find out the names of the five developers who Brent conducted "soft market testing" interviews with in April 2021, which allowed Council Officers to recommend to Cabinet that they should adopt this option for their Wembley Housing Zone scheme.

I'm also asking how those five were chosen, who chose them (I won't get names, but should get the positions they held), and for the documentary records of those interviews.

I know about this "soft marketing", because it was mentioned in the Officer's Report to Cabinet on 16 August:

'3.5.4 Soft market testing interviews with five developers undertaken April 2021 confirm general market appetite for new housing development opportunities, specific market appetite for Wembley as a location for private sales housing, the two planning schemes, preferred delivery approach for 50% affordable housing, procurement and contractual arrangements.'

"Specific market appetite for Wembley as a location for private sales housing" appears to mean, in plain English, that developers are hungry to cash in on the 150+ homes on a Brent Council development, on Brent Council land, that the Council is willing to hand them to make a profit on (rather than building those homes for needy families on its waiting list!).

David Walton said...

I doubt there is any private land grab opportunity at St Raphael's natural flood defence system from the River Brent anymore- attenuate rather than build ever more climate emergency must be Brent's new 2022 responsible approach to all lives and properties be they Brent hills or Brent vales located.

Agreed, Brent are poor at delivering new build social rent housing. Where Brent excel though is in mismanaging for demolition private clearances its remaining social rent housing assets, much of which is of superb build quality compared to what is built in its place. St Raphael's, Chalk Hill, the 60 council family houses of Malvern Road, NW6 all need to be eyes wide open.

Philip Grant said...

As I said in the final paragraph of my article above, I will not be able to attend next Monday's meeting myself, but I had written to ask the Mayor if she would be kind enough, as Chair of the meeting, to read my supplementary question herself, or arrange for a Council Officer to read it on my behalf.

This morning, I received this "helpful" response (supposedly on behalf of the Mayor) from a Council Officer:
'In terms of any supplementary question, unfortunately there is no provision or precedent allowing either the Mayor or an officer to read a question out on behalf of a member of the public.'

He did say that if I could arrange for another member of public to read out a supplementary question on my behalf, that would be allowed. Or I could send it in writing, and receive a written response, after the meeting.

Luckily, Martin has a Public Question of his own (about flooding) on the agenda, and he has kindly agreed to read out my supplementary question.

There is no way that I wish to let a Cabinet member avoid answering my question on this (lack of) social housing "scandal", in front of all her fellow councillors and the public!

David Walton said...

Correction. I meant Church End, not Chalk Hill regarding well- built human scale, low maintenance costs social rent housing still available in Brent.

Martin Francis said...

Email comment from Jaine:

I read Phil's article with much interest. It doesn't look like the Council have found any interested developers to start any works. Ujima House is quiet, although the Boxing Club owner told me that they were originally given notice for December 2021 as they hope to move in to the Main Pavillion in King Eddies Park but have not seen anything to do with the Planning Permission and they are expecting building works to be carried out to make it ready. It doesn't look like anything is going to happen very soon. On the original planning permission for redevelopment of Ujima House, Brent plan on building on the railway cutting just like Uncle , and in the past month, Network Rail have taken up the old cables and re-installed new ones closer to the track to enable this as a lot of work will be needed to support housing and the access road which has a 15 tonne weight restriction, there is also the issue of access as the turning circle is far too tight for large vehicles at present the only way they could get access would be to knock down my building, as I can't see that they will leave us here with 4 flats, 4 garages and a large garden, but all these things have to be resolved first and on the planning permission these were hidden from public and not dealt with as yet.

I'm going to send you some photo's of the new paving in High Road, one side i.e. outside Uncle/Daniels Estate Agents is looking quite nice however further down outside Halifax stretch has been completed and looks a right mess, as many of the shops retain the old paving or tarmac as it's on their freehold so it looks a right mishmash. I spoke to one owner and asked why it wasn't being done and he told me that he wasn't prepared to pay as it's part of his freehold and council won't do it unless he pays. I spoke with one of Conways Contractors in charge of this who told me that on parts of the High Road they can't install these bricks as some shops have basements and they can't dig down far enough to level it off to install the bricks as they are too heavy and foundations won't hold them. So it definitely won't look like the artist impression on the PR stuff they sent to residents. My street and the Triangle part is in Stage 4, so we will be right in the middle of the Football season by the time they reach us. That should be fun to watch.

Paul Lorber said...

Interesting point about paving in Wembley Hiogh Road made by Jaine.

As we all know Brent is in favour of digging up slabs and replacing them with asphalt in residential streets - even large sections of slabs which are in perfect condition. Labour Councillors happily sweep aside objections from local residents who wish to retain slabs for pavements in their street.

One section of the original footpath in Wembley High Road (section from Central Square to Ealing Road) is already made of asphalt.

The Brent approach is bizarre and often more wasteful. Half of Harrowdene Road in Sudbury was relayed with slabs some 4 years ago. When it came to the 2nd half the rest was done using asphalt.

So WHY is Wembley High Road getting very expensive (and according to Jaine in some cases unsuitable) paving stones (which are also very time consuming to lay) rather than asphalt which Labour Councillors claim is more "resilient" and therefore imposed on everyone else?

David Walton said...

In South Kilburn Vale, the urgent need is to emergency adaptive de-pave and de-asphalt, parks designed for example to wet-land pond as soak-aways with raised level pathways being installed.

Philip Grant said...

Cllr. Ketan Sheth, Chair of Brent's Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee, had an article on the need to build new affordable homes on Council-owned land published in yesterday's (18 November) "Brent & Kilburn Times". If you have not seen it, it is worth reading (even if you don't agree with everything he says).

As it raised points relevant to my article above, I have written to Cllr. Sheth this morning, and this is the full text of my email:-

Dear Councillor Sheth,

I read your article in yesterday's "Brent & Kilburn Times" with interest, and am attaching a copy of an article which I had published earlier this week on the "Wembley Matters" blog website, which I hope you will read.

You wrote: 'The value and cost of land in London is at an all time high: therefore, building on land already owned by the council means the building costs are lower and all of the new homes can be let at genuinely affordable rents.'

However, that is not what Brent's Cabinet voted to do on the former Copland School site at Cecil Avenue / Wembley High Road, which is vacant Council owned land, with full planning permission to build 250 homes (64 of them family-sized 3 and 4 bedroom homes) granted nine months ago.

Under the "preferred option" which Cabinet approved on 16 August, none would be for letting at social rent level. Only 37 of the 250 would be let at London Affordable rents, 61 would be "intermediate housing" (which although officially claimed to be "affordable", would not be for most people waiting for Brent Council homes) and 152 would be for sale at a profit by a "development partner".

I asked a Public Question, for the Full Council meeting on Monday, to bring this situation to the attention of all members of the Council, and the wider public, as for the past three months Cabinet members and Senior Officers have been unwilling to discuss the concerns I have raised.

If Brent were to build all 250 homes on its land at Cecil Avenue for genuinely affordable rents, it would make more Council homes available more quickly. It would also ease the pressure on Council Officers to squeeze more new homes onto existing Council estates, depriving existing residents of valuable green space in the process.

And it might save the Council from valid claims of hypocrisy!

Please do what you can, as Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee, to get Brent's Cabinet to see the error of their ways over their present plans for the Cecil Avenue site. Thank you. Best wishes,

Philip Grant.

Philip Grant said...

My supplementary question was not answered at the Full Council meeting on 22 November, because Cllr. Shama Tatler (Lead Member for Regeneration), to whom it was addressed, was unable to attend the meeting herself. She had been in close contact with Cllr. Muhammed Butt, who tested positive for Covid-19 on the morning of the meeting, so both had to isolate.

I have been promised a written answer to my supplementary question (see Martin's post of 23 November for its wording) by Monday 6 December.