Guest post by Philip Grant in a personal capacity
I’ve already written about the Morland Gardens parts of the Affordable Housing Supply Update report to next week’s (11 December 2023) Cabinet meeting, and Martin has also posted a blog about the temporary accommodation proposals in its South Kilburn section. In this article I will cover some of the other points that caught my eye from that report.
I am not seeking to underestimate the “challenges” which the Council faces over meeting current housing needs, particularly over the shortage of Central Government funding, rising construction costs and higher interest rates since the disastrous mini-budget during the short-lived Truss premiership. Brent has aimed to do more over housing than many other London Councils, and the recommendations in this report include to ‘approve the use of usable Capital reserves to fund’ the New Council Homes Programme (“NCHP”), and to provide extra resources to tackle the current temporary accommodation crisis.
A recent feature of such reports is a “Cabinet Member Foreword” (though whether these are written by the Lead Members, or for them by a Council Officer, is unclear). I was struck by these words from this Foreword’s para. 3.5: ‘this report emphasises the importance of being open and transparent with all ….’ I agree that openness and transparency are very important, but does this report deliver on those words?
In the report, are the Council being honest about what they have achieved so far? The Cabinet Member for Housing says: ‘we are on track to meet our target of 5,000 homes by 2028’. When the NCHP target was first launched five years ago, the aim was 5,000 affordable homes built in the borough between April 2019 and March 2024 inclusive. As part of that aim, the Council set itself ‘a strategic target of delivering 1,000 new council homes at genuinely affordable rent by 31 March 2024.’ So, they’ve missed that target, and replaced it with another!
Table 1 in the report (above), which should be accurate because the “numbers” have been “cleansed”, shows that 3,901 affordable homes will have been finished in the borough in the five years to March 2024 (although the “by tenure” column totals 3,943! - see my corrections in red). 812 of those are shown as delivered by Brent Council. But only 560 (those described as “General Needs”) of the new Council homes will be “genuinely affordable”, and of those 235 were for existing Council tenants being moved from older blocks due to be demolished.
The affordable homes provided by RPs (Registered Providers of social housing, such as Housing Associations) make up 3,089 of the 3,901 total, but only 940 of those homes appear to be “genuinely affordable”. That is just over 30% of the total, with the rest being “intermediate” homes, such as shared ownership. Although most of these will have received planning consent before Brent’s Local Plan came into force in February 2022, that is the opposite of the tenure split for affordable housing which is now supposed to apply: 70% genuinely affordable and no more than 30% “intermediate” affordable housing.
More details about the types of “affordable housing” can be found in an article, Brent’s Affordable Council Housing – figuring out Cllr. Butt’s reply, which I wrote after a previous Cabinet update in November 2022.
The report has a section headed “Schemes on site and in main works contract”, and there are two schemes in particular from this that I would draw attention to. The first of these is Watling Gardens, the Council’s positive publicity over the start of work on which was mentioned in another article on Brent’s Council housing in October.
While the report says that this scheme ‘is currently on track’, it would cost more than the £38.5m which Brent’s Cabinet approved as the contract award price in June 2022. Brent’s answer is to issue an instruction that the project must be “value engineered”. What does that mean? It means that it will still have to built as planned, but using some materials which are less expensive than those originally intended. Previous examples of “value engineering” which come to mind are the use of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in some public buildings during cost saving measures in the 1960s to 1980s, and the £300k “saved” by using cheaper cladding when Grenfell Tower was being refurbished!
The stage and TV drama, where all the words were taken directly from Inquiry transcripts!
I’m not trying to suggest that the cost saving at Watling Gardens would result in anything as life-threatening as Grenfell Tower, but in the interests of transparency the public, and particularly future residents of the development (including those whose homes were demolished with the promise of a replacement there), deserve to be told what cheaper materials will be used as part of this “value engineering”.
I have written about Brent’s Wembley Housing Zone project on a number of occasions, including about the extra GLA funding it received, and about the 152 out of 250 homes on the former Copland School site at Cecil Avenue which Brent’s “developer partner” will get for private sale, rather than being Council homes for Brent people in housing need. The report now says there will be less than 250 homes, because of the need for extra staircases, as a result of fire safety changes following the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
I’m pleased to see that Brent appears to have learned one lesson from Morland Gardens (the need to begin work before planning consent expires), but why has it taken nearly three years to get to this stage? However, the report does not say how many of the new figure of 237 homes will be for private sale, and how many of those left for the Council will now be for “genuinely affordable” rent, rather than shared ownership. A lack of openness, which I will try to remedy!
You need to read to the end of the report, on page 21, to find out what it means by ‘the importance of being open and transparent’, which I quoted near the start of this article. It appears that, to Brent Council and its Cabinet, this is more to do with the messages it gives out, rather than a commitment to being genuinely open and transparent about everything:
In other words, it is the usual “spin” that Brent Council puts out, either only sharing “good news” stories (usually with the Leader and/or one of his Cabinet colleagues getting the credit for something positive) or giving the reasons (excuses?) for why they can’t do what they had originally promised to deliver.