Croydon housing crisis? What crisis?


By - Thursday 11th May, 2017

Risks and opportunities as policymakers consider putting a roof over our heads


On Thursday 13th April, I went to Croydon Conference Centre in Surrey Street to attend a discussion titled ‘How do we solve Croydon’s housing crisis?’, which was billed as organised by Croydon Debate Club and featured Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central and minister for housing and London. Although this seemed at first glance to be a non-partisan gathering, it was hosted by Robert Ward, a Conservative Party member (and fellow Citizen contributor). In practice, this meant that it was more of a discussion rather than a debate: to me the word ‘debate’ indicates that some opposing views would be presented, so that a motion could be debated.

Confusion arose outside the venue about capacity and availability of tickets (which were free) with some doubt as to whether everyone who had turned up could be accommodated. As it turned out, there were plenty of empty chairs which could have been taken up by those who were unable to gain access. There was a handful of what might be called protestors gathered in front of the building. I talked with the friendly ones, although there was a group in hoodies with their faces covered who seemed altogether more sinister, and in fact the police were called. I understand that there was no actual trouble, in spite of what were reported as some thuggish individuals on the political right appearing too. In any case, Gavin Barwell had apparently entered the building through the fire escape.

Robert Ward presented a brief introduction citing the draft local plan and then handed over to Gavin Barwell. I had read the recent white paper, ‘Fixing Our Broken Housing Market‘, which appears to represent something of a turnaround from Mr Barwell’s previously stated opinions in a Croydon context. I had therefore assumed that most of it had been formulated prior to his appointment as minister in July 2016. However, in conversation afterwards I learnt that it had been started in July 2016 and in fact is his project. Without wanting to seem patronising, I was impressed with how he has seized the opportunity and whilst I am unlikely to ever agree with him on everything, the plan is in many ways a positive step forward. In spite of his newfound enthusiasm for the rental sector, Gavin did however occasionally let slip his view that ownership is something that all should aspire to. We also had to agree to disagree on right to buy, which he supports.

The requirements of pension funds do not align with public need

Something that has been slipped quietly into the white paper is the coming role of institutional investors in the build-to-rent sector. This idea has been bubbling away since at least 2014. Since these institutional investors will want to maintain their stock intact, Gavin confirmed that their tenants will not be eligible for right to buy. In that case, it seems legitimate to ask why housing associations are being forced to sell their stock in this way.

My concerns are also that the way that this will work has been determined by the institutional investors themselves, thereby missing an opportunity for this initiative to operate for the public good. As it stands, the likes of pension funds will be looking to maximise the returns for their investors, and this may not align with public need.

I’d like to see a system of housing bonds introduced, with local authorities bidding for the funds raised. I also believe that the role of the Greater London Authority needs to be strengthened in housing: at present it sets targets for the boroughs, but in many cases the boroughs are unable to meet them as they have inadequate control of the resources needed.

We risk a descent into the slum conditions of the nineteenth century

I also raised the issue of improving stability in the private rented sector and asked whether it would be possible to introduce tax benefits, such as capital gains exemptions, for landlords who keep rents stable and maintain some level of security for tenants. Gavin seemed open to such suggestions and asked me to write to him with further details. The subject of fair rents and their role in community building and social cohesion is an area that appears to be neglected in the white paper but in spite of that, it was gratifying to see some recognition of initiatives taken by Croydon Council such as Brick by Brick (which Gavin said is “great”) and landlord licensing.

It remains to be seen whether this new approach will bear fruit. In truth, the very title of the paper grates with me, with its assumption that housing people adequately is just a matter of fixing a market.

And now we have been plunged into a general election and Croydon Central is a marginal seat. It is possible that we may find ourselves with a new housing minister by mid June – conceivably even a new government. My hope is that housing becomes a central issue in the campaign. After seven years of Conservative government, housing in Croydon and indeed London as a whole is at breaking point, with demand far in excess of supply and need addressed only by increases in occupation density. This puts additional strain on infrastructure and services, risking the start of a descent into the slum conditions of the nineteenth century if not checked.

Ian Marvin

Ian Marvin

Ian is a product designer who moved to the borough in 2003. His interests in all things Croydon stretch from being on the committee of the Constructing Excellence Croydon Club to active membership of the Croydon Clandestine Cake Club. During the day he works on his interior lighting businesses which are also based in Croydon. In the unlikely event that he has any leisure time, he enjoys creating ceramic pieces and playing bass guitar. Any opinions expressed here are personal.

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  • Michael Swadling

    Ian – good meeting I thought.

    I’m keen for you to clarify the following “in spite of what were reported as some thuggish individuals on the political right appearing too”.

    I had my access to the meeting blocked to the meeting by two hoodies with their faces covered. Fortunately like most bullies when confronted they soon backed down.

    • Ian Marvin

      The very fact that they were concealing their identities made it difficult to identify them. I had an anecdotal report that after the meeting had started there were some further confrontations. I imagine most of us can agree that those who hide their faces because they wish to cause conflict should be condemned. It seems particularly prevalent at the moment and apparently was the cause of the heavy policing of the demonstrations in Croydon last Saturday, 6th May.

  • Mario Creatura

    Labour Cllrs Stuart King and Stuart Collins have both been headliners at the Debate Club. As has the Borough Commander. To claim that because a member of the Conservative Party has got it going that this makes the entire endeavour partisan is absurd.

    Robert has done a phenomenal job creating a neutral environment where anyone can attend (as long as their intent is to politely discuss and not hurl stink bombs or threaten violence as those who were refused admittance last time did!) to discuss important local issues with those in the know.

    The more who attend, the merrier I say. And the more who do, the better it will be to generate ideas and hold those in authority to account.

    Surely that’s a thing to be encouraged?

    • Ian Marvin

      Exactly Mario, I’ve only been to this one event and my comment was based on the fact that when I clicked it on Facebook it said ‘hosted by Croydon Conservatives.’ I’d stick by my point that is was less a classic debate than a Q&A session, not that there isn’t a place for that too. Maybe when the election is over we can have a debate in the traditional sense.

      • Robert Ward

        Thanks Ian for the points you raise. Here are a few comments.

        The Croydon Debate Club is organised by me, not the Conservative Party. The Debate Club does not have a Facebook page so I have no idea where the suggestion came from. It wasn’t me and I can’t find anything myself. If someone can point me at it I will investigate.

        I am indeed a member of the Conservative Party (and a number of other organisations) but my purpose in setting up the club was to avoid party-politicised discussions, something that I think Croydon particularly suffers from. Take a look at any council meeting and there is little enlightenment and much yah-boo stuff. I think we were generally successful in avoiding the party politics.

        I deliberately chose not to have a formal debate format. I don’t think they help discussion and there are other opportunities for that. What we did generally worked, but with Gavin and the Borough Commander it was hard to prevent the meeting becoming a Question and Answer session of our guest.

        Regarding attendance, with this particular meeting and no other I made it ticket only with no admittance if you just turned up. The reason why was obvious outside with threats made and persistent attempts to disrupt the meeting. This was worse than I had anticipated and did involve me calling the police. I was grateful to all those people who took turns standing at the door and making sure the meeting was not disrupted. The only thuggish behaviour was from the people outside.

        I plan to re-start the Debate Club, probably in the late Summer but before then I will be sending out a questionnaire to all who have attended meetings. I am open to changes about where we have the meetings, the format and who might attend. I hope you and others will contribute to that exercise.

        Regards.

        Robert.

        • Ian Marvin

          Thanks for the clarification Robert. I found out about the event because it was listed on Facebook by Croydon Conservatives. This Facebook page definitely seems affiliated to the Conservative Party and links through to croydonconservatives.com. Here’s the link to the event:

          • Malcolm Bell

            I attended this event, and also the previous event on Air Quality which was far more of a traditional debate than a Q&A with Cllr Stuart King. At each meeting Robert gave an introduction in a non-party-political way, and to me did not shown political bias when chairing. Ultimately the “politics” of the debate will be dictated by who turns up and speaks, rather than the chair. I look forward to the debates resuming later in the year.

          • Robert Ward

            Hi Malcolm, thanks for your support. Look forward to seeing you when we resume.

          • Robert Ward

            Thanks Ian. The link helped. Apparently when you promote an event on Facebook using a ‘page’, the page is said to be ‘hosting’ whatever event it is that you’re advertising. Croydon Conservatives picked up that Gavin was speaking so publicised on their Facebook account so that is the way it appears. I posted there in response and didn’t notice that detail.

            I think this tells me that I am going to have to have something more formal in the way of a Debate Club terms of reference in future. Whether I have a Facebook page is another question. I had tried to avoid a web presence other than Twitter but maybe that has to change too.

          • Ian Marvin

            I understand Robert and am reassured about your own motivation and would confirm that your own introduction was non-partisan. I think there is space for a Croydon Debate Club and perhaps if you had some co-hosts involved it would reinforce the idea. Meetup might be a better platform to use, I’d be happy to have a chat. There is a problem that anyone can create a Facebook Event and put in a link to a booking page which lead to the confusion. If you use Meetup you would have the opportunity to include a request that this isn’t done, but encourage people to link to the actual event. By the way, I’m not a member of any political party although obviously I have opinions . . .