Cllr Andrew Johnson, Cabinet Member for Housing on Hammersmith & Fulham Council, says waiting lists for council housing should be transparent and fair system and that the real demand is for low cost home ownership
When people talk about the housing crisis within London the one statistic which is always quoted is the number of people currently on local authority waiting lists for social housing. These lists are then used to justify the calls to build thousands more socially rented homes to address the so called level of ‘demand’. Yet the key question has to be is this figure a true and accurate reflection of real need?
Upon closer examination the social housing waiting list figures simply do not stand up to scrutiny. Most local authorities operate what is called an ‘open register’, whereby anyone can apply to join in the hope of gaining the golden ticket of a subsidized home, in many cases, for life. Indeed, until this week my own authority of Hammersmith and Fulham operated an open register that told us on paper we had over 10,000 people in ‘need’ of social housing within the Borough.
That is until we implemented a radical reform of how we allocate social housing to ensure that local people, in genuine need of somewhere to live have priority on the housing register. This has seen the numbers on the housing waiting list plummet to 1100, a reduction of nearly 90%. From this week only those with a five year local connection to the borough, a combined salary of less than £40,200, or those who are actually eligible for social housing will be allowed onto H&F’s housing register. At the same time we are prioritising those who are working, those in training leading to employment and those making a significant contribution to the community, eg ex-service personnel and foster carers.
For many on the left this may seem grossly unfair, yet in reality the opposite is true. Our new register replaces a system that allowed anyone, from any part of the country, and indeed overseas, to apply for social housing, irrespective of whether they were eligible for it, or were even a homeowner. There were also cases of people sitting on the list for as long as 36 years.
Those 90% of applicants who were removed never stood a realistic chance of ever getting a home, despite waiting for years. Not because there is a shortage of homes, but the fact that they would never be eligible for them. Yet they were told to join and given false hope that one day they might get something, despite the fact that they are already adequately housed.
Our new system is fairer and more credible. By reducing our housing register down to 1,100 local people who are in real need of a home here in Hammersmith & Fulham we have created a system which enables housing officers to focus more intensively on each applicant, rather than updating forms for people they knew were not eligible for social housing. We make around 470 new lettings each year so those who are on the new register now stand a real chance of getting a council home rather than waiting for years under an illusion of false hope.
Likewise it isn’t right that people from anywhere in the UK and new migrants arriving in this country are able to apply for a council home and jump ahead of hard working local people who have lived in our borough for many years. This is why we have brought in a 5-year local connection rule as one of the key criteria to getting on the new register.
Yet if the level of actual demand for social housing is much lower than previously stated where does demand exist? In Hammersmith & Fulham it’s clearly demand for low cost homeownership. Given that our register for intermediate housing is now nearly four times greater than that for social housing at over 4000. That’s the real demand in Hammersmith & Fulham, and I dare say across much of London. Demand for intermediate housing for rent or sale to put in place the ladders of housing opportunity.
That’s why we’re doing all we can to increase the supply of homes to buy for local people on low to medium incomes, through new delivery using council land and assets. We already have a significant amount of social housing, but it needs to be used more effectively. It’s why we’ve brought in fixed termed tenancies and given far greater priority for those in work rather than on welfare. What we really need is more housing for the middle market and at long last we have the figures to prove it.