Cllr Paul Ellis is the Cabinet Member for Housing on Wandsworth Council.
The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement announcement of more help for aspiring homeowners is good news, particularly as the percentage of owner occupiers has fallen dramatically in recent years. This is particularly pronounced in high value areas such as inner London, including my own borough, Wandsworth. Despite actively promoting the right to buy among council tenants for 38 years, lobbying long and hard for housing association tenants to enjoy the same right and recently being praised by Sadiq Khan, no less, for building a record number of affordable homes we are seeing home ownership falling to just over 50 per cent. The main reason for this is the enormous growth of the private rented sector; just over a third of Wandsworth residents now live in privately rented homes.
A few months ago the council commissioned a survey of private renters to try and understand their experiences of their landlords, and what their aspirations are for the future. The majority (85 per cent) were generally happy with both their accommodation and their landlords, which is the good news. The bad news is that, whilst some saw themselves as long-term renters, the majority wanted to buy but believed they would never be able to in our borough. With two-up-two down Victorian houses selling for just short of a million pounds and ex-Council flats fetching £400,000 it isn’t difficult to see why they see their future as bleak. However, we are doing our best to try and help anyone who wants to become a homeowner achieve their goal.
Every year we hold an annual Affordable Home Ownership day to which we invite all our council tenants and those residents, mainly young professionals, who have expressed an interest in shared ownership. This year just under a thousand people came along to not only talk to our Council’s dedicated Home Ownership team (who else has got one of those?) and housing associations who are currently developing in the borough, and also mortgage brokers and solicitors who can help would be buyers navigate through the minefield of their first purchase. One of the would be buyers I spoke to described the event as being “a bit like a Freshers Fair” because it had helped him to understand what opportunities were available and, more importantly, what to do about them. As far as I know no other council does this, and would be absolutely delighted to talk to promote it in their area.
Shared ownership (where someone buys a minimum of 25 per cent of their home and pays rent on the remainder) is one way people can get onto the housing ladder in high value areas, but is relatively little known. We are currently securing around 25% affordable housing in all new developments, most of which is shared ownership. Would be purchasers register with the council’s Home Ownership team which then lets them know when opportunities become available. By actively marketing in this way we last year we ensured 96 per cent of these new homes were sold to people who lived or worked in Wandsworth.
The main drawback of shared ownership is it is traditionally associated with new build. Not everyone wants to live in a brand new home, and there are far more older properties available, so we looked at ways of helping people buy all types of homes. The solution we have come up with is called DIY Shared Ownership, which we hope to launch next year. We have teamed up with a housing association and basically the prospective buyer goes off and finds something on the open market and, subject to the normal affordability checks, buys it jointly with the housing association.
A large number of council tenants want to become homeowners, and we want to help them achieve that. Since 1978 we have actively promoted homeownership among our tenants, and so far have sold over 50% of our housing stock. We currently have a further 1,000 tenants who say they want to buy but, sadly, high prices mean few will be able to do so. Consequently we have devised a scheme called Right to Part Buy, which is shared ownership by another name. When it is launched in January we will be writing to every tenant who is has a good tenancy record, has no rent arrears and has not been in receipt of housing benefit for the last two years telling them about this new scheme and encouraging them to apply. We are confident there will be a lot of interest. We also realise that not all tenants want to buy their existing homes but would not be able to buy in the private sector without assistance. We therefore offer house purchase grants, which call Portable Discounts, of up to £80,000 to tenants who are looking at a move out of the social rented sector. Sometimes this will be used to top up the deposit for a family on low to middle incomes looking to buy, and in other cases it pays for adaptations to a family home to enable an elderly person to live with their nearest and dearest. We don’t see this as public subsidy for our existing tenants, but more as an investment in the future. All receipts from council home sales are used to improve our estates and provide replacement homes, and all homes freed up are used to house those on our waiting list and homeless families.
These are just a few things we are doing in Wandsworth to promote homeownership, which we hope others will want to try as well. Similarly, we are always open to good ideas from others.