Cllr Jonathan Cook is the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing and Community Services on Wandsworth Council.
We all know the coming year will be tough for many, particularly those on lower incomes. Rising cost of living pressures, global energy market turmoil, and recovering from the pandemic and its consequences will combine to create financial challenges for many, and real hardship for some. Covid focussed our attention on supporting those most in need. After a difficult 24 months, Wandsworth Council continues to seek ways to protect the most vulnerable, and to support residents and businesses, helping them get back on their feet and to thrive.
Wandsworth froze Council Tax in April 2021, seeing it as the single most effective thing we could do as a council to support as many of our residents as possible. This move kept our Council Tax the lowest in the UK, helping those with the least, the most. Now as we enter 2022 with signs that the pandemic is finally easing, but far from over in terms of its impact, in the same spirit we intend to freeze our council energy charges this coming year, together with our rents.
Energy costs are an area of real concern. Huge shifts in global markets look set to lead to rises for consumers in excess of 50 per cent in the coming months. That’s why we intend to freeze those costs under our control – council heating and hot water charges – for the coming year.
In addition, we intend to freeze our council rents. With some 17,000 tenants (and a similar number of leaseholders) Wandsworth council directly manages a significant housing stock. We have long had a focus on setting high standards, offering good service and value for money. As with energy charges freezing rents is a choice, and one we are able to make in support of our residents because of many years of careful management of finances.
Prudent management of energy contracts in recent years has given us scope to freeze our heating and hot water charges for the year from April. Reserves accumulated in the past few years, with flexible procurement and hedging strategies, have given us the leeway that now enables Wandsworth Council to take this action.
Freezing charges at this challenging time will make it easier to cope with what appears to be a long term trend in energy costs, particularly gas on which, for the time being, we will all continue to depend as our longer term decarbonisation strategies gather pace. Of course, we won’t be able to defer the impact of rising energy prices indefinitely, but we can help now, giving people breathing space as we all get used to the emerging new realities of energy costs. This is in addition to a freeze on rents for the same period.
These measures are possible because of more than 40 years of Conservative stewardship at Wandsworth. They also build on support measures through the pandemic – to local business, our town centres, community hubs, constantly open green spaces, and so much more – all helping the borough’s residents through the challenges of the last 24 months, and now concentrated on helping our residents bounce back and prosper post-pandemic. It’s why so many of our residents feel Wandsworth is a great place to live, with some of the highest satisfaction levels for any council in the UK, and why our aim is to ‘Keep Wandsworth Special’.
Wandsworth is able to do this with an ambitious 1,000 home ‘Housing for All’ programme of new council-led building on council land well underway; a £1.1bn estate regeneration gathering pace, with the first new homes occupied, and a £500m estate regeneration ‘on the blocks’ awaiting support from London’s Mayor – a further 3,600 new homes.
These initiatives demonstrate Wandsworth’s commitment to improving life chances for residents, and echo the leadership shown by the council in the Nine Elms regeneration, where some 20,000 new homes and 25,000 new jobs are supported by the recent opening of London’s first new tube line in 20 years – the Northern Line Extension to Battersea Power Station – entirely privately funded with no public money toward its £1.3bn cost.
All-in-all it demonstrates what can be achieved through long-term prudent management of resources, and that Wandsworth Council is firmly on the side of its residents – improving lives and opportunities – especially those who may need additional support at this difficult time.
So, in these chilly winter months, two freezes that we hope will be welcomed by residents in Wandsworth are to council rents and energy charges.