Many of the larger council estates in London include a building sometimes called a “tenants’ hall”. This is a community centre specifically intended for the benefit of the residents on the estate. While owned by the local authority, the idea is that it should be run by the local Tenants’ and Residents’ Association for the estate. Some are heavily used – indeed they are pulsating hubs of the Big Society. They might be a useful source of revenue from taking bookings – from martial arts classes or nursery schools, for instance. Those funds can then be used to enhance the local environment.
The problem is that many others are used very little – or not at all. When I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham I asked about the ones owned in our borough. The response I got was that of the 23 such buildings, over the previous year, six had no record of bookings. Most of the rest had very few. Only two were in heavy use.
Typically these tenants’ halls are substantial buildings. Furthermore, they are often single storey. So they could be replaced by small blocks of flats – perhaps a dozen new homes. As the land is already owned by the Council, there could be a significant capital receipt if the housing was for private sale. Or there could be a mix of social and private housing with the scheme being self-financing.
I have used Freedom of Information requests to find out the situation in other London boroughs.
- Camden told me they had 74 tenants’ halls of which 54 are used at least once a week.
- Lambeth has 43 of which 39 are used “regularly”.
- Greenwich has eight of which six are used at least once a week.
- Haringey has tenants’ halls, two are derelict, four are used at least once a week.
- Ealing has ten tenants’ halls.
- Southwark has 97. The Council has no record of how many are used.
- Hounslow has 28, of which 21 are in use.
- Kensington and Chelsea has 16, of which ten are used at least once a week.
- Newham has 15 of which “most” are in use.
- Lewisham has 19.
- Brent has 34.
The mentality of some housing officers is to shrug. They just think of these buildings as being the responsibility of the tenants’ associations. That is unacceptable. Some of these buildings are derelict eyesores with the windows boarded up. In some estates, there is no active tenants’ associations. Even if there is, they are often not able to take on the responsibility of letting out buildings. There should be proper asset management by local authorities for buildings they own. For a start, a proper record should be kept of how much tenants’ halls are used. Then there should be some kind of legal trigger mechanism to ensure that those that are unused, or under-used, are redeveloped for housing. It could be, for instance, those being used less than ten hours a week. Some of the proceeds from the sale could be used to clear any backlog of capital works due to be carried out on the estate. Estate residents could also be given priority for new social housing. For instance, those in overcrowded conditions could be first in line for larger new properties.
This is a modest proposal. But it an example of how councils could be doing more to increase the housing supply out of resources already available to them. Lack of funding is not an excuse.