Council rents in Greenwich could be set for a future increase in rents after the new councillor in charge of housing said she wanted to clean up the borough’s tatty estates and fix its troubled repairs service.
Greenwich has long boasted about having the lowest council rents in London – currently at an average of £96 per week, plus about £15 in service charges, far lower than those in housing association homes. Last year, the London average council rent was £17 more than Greenwich.
Pat Slattery, the new cabinet member for housing, told councillors at a scrutiny meeting that she feared the borough was “killing people with kindness” with such a low level of rents.
The Greenwich Park councillor also suggested that the council could remove people from the 25,000-strong housing waiting list because most – the 21,000 on band C of the list – are not deemed priority cases and are unlikely to be rehoused.
Neighbouring Lewisham only admits what it considers to be priority cases and has about 10,000 on its waiting list. Both assess priority cases differently and Greenwich is currently reviewing its policy.
With the surroundings of some Greenwich estates in a visibly poor condition, debates have raged within the ruling Labour party over whether rents should be increased to put more money into the service.
Not all tenants pay such low rents, but at a recent housing scrutiny meeting, Greenwich Peninsula councillor David Gardner suggested that this could be a factor in why Greenwich has such a large waiting list compared with other boroughs.
Slattery said: “I don’t know the details of how many more people we’ve got on our waiting list than other boroughs, but we are going to be looking at that in the review that’s coming up.
“At the moment we require a five-year connection to the borough. I don’t think we ask for salary levels – I’m not sure. We’re very generous and I’m quite proud of that, but we might be killing people with our kindness, including on the low rent.
“The gap between council went and registered providers [housing associations] I’m sure must be incredibly attractive. So I probably would support gradually increasing our rent over the years.”
However, because the council has historically held rents down well below the guideline levels set nationally – unlike most other London levels – and rules designed to keep rents down, Greenwich has little room to move, Greenwich’s senior council officer in charge of housing, Jamie Carswell, said. However, he said that the government had been considering changing the rules to allow more freedom to increase rents.
The meeting took place three weeks ago, but has gone unreported elsewhere. It was held before the council publicly revealed that there were hundreds of fire safety defects on estates. No written questions relating to it were submitted ahead of last night’s full council meeting (see update below).
With no Conservative councillor present – the opposition group was reduced to three at May’s election – the discussion was peppered with references to Labour group meetings, which are held in secret.
With 25,151 families and individuals on the waiting list in May, just 900 were rehoused last year, Slattery said – while new applications were coming in at 100 per month.
“That the overwhelming number of properties that we can fill with residents are to B1 and B2 priority or band A. If you’re a C band, which 21,138 of those people are, your chances of getting rehoused in a foreseeable number of years are slim,” she said.
“In fact, last year, only 148 of those 900 [rehoused] were C band, yet that band takes up three quarters of officer time in dealing with complaints and of [councillors’] inquiries.
“In some ways it’s beginning to be clear that there’s a false expectation if you’re in C. The chances of you getting somewhere are really very slim. And so that’s sad.
“I think we all know the housing market in the UK is broken and that’s the human consequence of that. So we are going to have to start looking into what we do about that and that will very much be a big conversation in Labour Group.”
“Don’t write that down, Raymond,” she then joked to the committee’s clerk.
The council also has over 1,600 people in temporary accommodation – a figure that has doubled since 2018.
Slattery said her priorities included fixing the council’s troubled repair service, tackling “the large register of [band] Cs”, new council homes and “just how it feels to be on our estates in terms of cleanliness, grounds, maintenance and behaviour – really antisocial behaviour”.
“I think that’s quite important, the quality of life on our estates,” she added.
“There’s a significant capital programme over the next seven years, it’s about £430 million and it will be spent on things like kitchens, bathrooms, repairing electrics, replacing external decorations – decorating the stairwells and the like. It’s been a long time since Greenwich’s had an external decorations programme. So there’s a lot of catch-up [to be done].”
Slattery added that £50 million would be spent on retrofitting council homes as part of the council’s carbon-neutral plans.
But she said that caretaking on estates could be seen as a “Cinderella service” and she would be moving it higher up the agenda.
“I think the head of care taking and his staff have quite high standards,” she said. “They don’t have enough resources and that obviously they sometimes fail. I got a lot of complaints on the doorstep in the last election.
“We’ve got a service level agreement with our parks and open spaces section but I’m not sure we’re getting the service that we are hoping for. So I’ve asked for there to be a review of that to see whether it’d be back to bring it back in house and put it under the caretaking management.”
On repairs, Slattery said that in many cases, multiple visits were being carried out to fix issues in tenants’ homes, and a new pay and rewards system would be introduced to incentivise productivity.
3.10pm update: Conservative leader Matt Hartley has been in touch to say that he hoped to ask a oral question at last night’s meeting but was not called. He told 853: “Tenants will be concerned by the cabinet member’s talk of a ‘looming potential for a large rent increase next year’ – particularly given the cost of living crisis that the new Labour administration says is its top priority. Councillor Slattery also referred to ‘political discussions’ taking place within the privacy of the Labour group of councillors – the public need to be told what those discussions are, and what level of rent rise is being considered.”