Westminster's Purchase of Housing in Hounslow

MQT on 2017-01-18
Session date: 
January 18, 2017
Question By: 
Tom Copley
Labour Group
Asked Of: 
The Mayor


What are the Mayor's views on Westminster City Council's purchase of twenty-four one and two bed flats within the London Borough of Hounslow?


Answer for Westminster's Purchase of Housing in Hounslow

Answer for Westminster's Purchase of Housing in Hounslow

Answered By: 
The Mayor

Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  Thank you.  I understand that Westminster City Council intends to let the flats it has bought as social housing.  I would encourage councils to meet local housing needs within their boundaries wherever possible.  I would also expect there to be ongoing dialogue between the respective councils when a decision is taken to purchase or deliver housing outside of a borough.  We know that, across London, people in all parts of the city are finding housing harder and harder to afford.  In some parts of the capital, this pressure is particularly acute.  Clearly, the rise in house prices and rents and the failure to build enough new and affordable housing is at the centre of this problem. 


Faced with a housing crisis that results from a complex web of rises in housing costs and policies to reduce housing benefit, I appreciate that many boroughs are struggling to meet their residents’ housing needs.  I believe my draft Affordable Housing Viability SPG offers all boroughs a powerful tool to support the delivery of more genuinely affordable homes through the planning system.  This will work hand-in-hand with my new Homes for Londoners Affordable Housing Programme, which confirms my commitment to invest a record £3.15 billion settlement with the Government into genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy.  As a result, I expect a significantly greater level of affordable housing delivery across our own boroughs, and hopefully there will be more opportunities for councils to offer households somewhere to live in their local areas. 


At the moment, however, I am aware that many boroughs face huge pressures in meeting their obligations to house the growing number of families who are homeless.  The upshot is that many councils are forced to make increasing use of accommodation in other areas, sometimes outside London.  That is why I have taken steps in this tricky territory of homelessness that the previous mayor did not.


Tom Copley AM:  Thank you very much for that answer, Mr Mayor.  The crucial thing here is the lack of communication in particular and the lack of notice that Westminster gave to the London Borough of Hounslow.  Councillor Steve Curran, who is Leader of Hounslow, has said that Westminster basically did not engage with them about what they were doing.


The other issue here, of course, is that Westminster or Galliard, who built this development, use permitted development (PD) rights to convert office space, which means that there was no section 106 payment to make up the pressure on amenity, no contribution to Hounslow’s own affordable housing funds.  Do you think it is a bit hypocritical of Westminster to use PD rights in this way when it lobbied very hard and successfully for Westminster itself to be exempt from PD rights?


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  There is a new Leader about to take over Westminster Council, and I am going to be generous to her because we are trying to build bridges here.  Just generally speaking, we have had concerns about PD in London for a while now.  You have raised them before. 


What makes me so unhappy with this example you have given is that PD rights were used by a developer to convert office space in Hounslow to private residential use.  A different council agrees to purchase the development from the Housing Revenue account and it is not homeless people; it is to do with people on the waiting list, and there are issues here.  That is why I encourage councillors to speak to each other.  Dialogue is so important.


One of the things that the London Minister for Housing has offered to do - and again I thank him for doing this - is to speak to the Deputy Mayor for Housing in relation to the White Paper soon to be published.  I am hoping we can resolve some of these tensions because they should be able to be avoided, and it is important we get this right.


Tom Copley AM:  Absolutely.  On that basis, because this is just one incident and one can imagine that this issue may affect other boroughs as well, would you ask Claire Kober in her capacity as leader of London Councils to try to broker between boroughs an agreement as exists for temporary accommodation because it would be a different sort of agreement?  For temporary accommodation there are a number of criteria that boroughs agree to adhere to when they are going to house families in other boroughs.  Would you ask her to broker a similar agreement when it comes to permanent accommodation for residents on the waiting list?


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  Far be it for me to suggest to the London Councils what they do.  London Councils understand the challenges.  There is a concern; we discussed in different contexts outer London and inner London.  There is a concern amongst the leaders of outer London Councils that because it is cheaper to house people there that inner London Councils are sending people who need housing to outer London boroughs, and that is why, not just the current Chair of London Councils, but the previous one as well, working with housing needs have tried to reach an agreement that suits everyone.  Of course I will pass on to Claire as the Chair of London Councils the issues you have raised.  It is a difficult issue and that is why I have tried to be generous in my original answer about recognising the challenges councils across London face.


Tom Copley AM:  Thank you, Mr Mayor.


Andrew Dismore AM:  Mr Mayor, you will of course remember, as I do, because I was at Westminster Council at the time, the infamous 1980s Westminster Homes for Votes, so-called “Building Stable Communities” scandal, described by the courts as “the greatest act of corruption in local government history” and presided over at the time by the infamous Conservative Council Leader Dame Shirley Porter. 


One of the many thousands of incriminating documents we dug out was by the Director of Housing who wrote his orders in the margin, “To be mean and nasty to the homeless”.  As in Hounslow, Conservative Westminster Council also now intends to send large numbers of homeless people - Westminster residents - to the Midlands, to Coventry, Birmingham and Leicester, with hundreds being forced to take one of the 200 properties that they are taking control of, which would end any responsibility of Westminster to find them a permanent home.  In 2009 the then Council Leader, rather belatedly apologised to all those affected by the Homes for Votes scandal and said that Shirley Porter’s actions were the opposite of the Council’s policies today.


Do you think that what is going on now in Westminster is not actually the opposite of what Lady Porter was up to and they are sending Westminster residents to Coventry and Hounslow and elsewhere, deporting the homeless people and being mean and nasty to them, despite whatever strong ties they may have to the City of Westminster?


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  I am going to be generous to the new Leader of Westminster Council; she has taken over, surely.  We have to differentiate social housing from housing those who are homeless and there are urgent reasons why; you can understand why other boroughs may help out and other parts of the country may help out.  It is worth reminding ourselves that some of this is a consequence of welfare benefit changes made by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government and carried on by the Conservative Government now. 


The reason why it is so important is because one of the joys of London is our social mix and, if we are not careful, one of the consequences of these policies is a hollowing-out of London.  You visit Paris and compare and contrast to London.  We do not want a situation where the same happens in London as currently happens in Paris.  That is why cheek-by-jowl, people who are wealthy and those who are less wealthy, is a joy of London and I would not want any council in London to have policies which change the joys of our diverse London.  I take your point about learning from history and Westminster’s policies during the 1980s and 1990s were shameful.  I am sure that the future generations of politicians in Westminster and elsewhere have learned from that and learned that that is not the way to conduct local government policy.


Andrew Dismore AM:  They probably have learned from history, but rather a different lesson to one that you or I would like them to learn.  It seems to me that, inevitably, Westminster is trying to do exactly what you said, which is to hollow out the city to make it much harder for ordinary people to live in the city as opposed to the wealthy, whom they seem to be keen to have move in.


Tony Devenish AM:  Just to make a point of clarification, Mr Copley has been misinformed.  We did communicate - I have confirmed with my colleagues on Westminster Council - with Hounslow Council and, like a lot of Labour councils doing exactly the same thing in Camden and Islington, in moving people out.  That is what we are all having to do because of the markets.


Andrew Dismore AM:  Ask the Mayor if he is aware of this.


Tony Devenish AM:  I thank the Mayor for his comments because I agree with his comments that the new Leader of the Council will work very closely with the Mayor to get things done.