Don’t push Croydon to the back of the housing queue

By - Thursday 26th November, 2015

Robert Ward warns that if Croydon’s movers and shakers make the borough too unattractive for developers, we’ll simply end up with no new housing at all

With the consultation period for the revised Croydon Local Plan just beginning, now is a good time to review where we are, starting with what we already know about the council’s thinking on housing. According to a press release from May of this year headed ‘ten priorities on housing‘, housing is their top priority. So it should be a matter of understanding the current environment, making the strategic decisions and moving swiftly into action.

Priorities are important, so let’s look at the press release in some detail. Straightaway there’s a problem. The ten priorities are so vague that it is hard to disagree with any of them. I broadly agree with almost all of them. Indeed it would be hard for anyone to disagree with them. Who could possibly object to “developing strong communities” or “building more homes for local people”?

Exceptions might be “driving up standards for private tenants”, not for the objective itself but because I suspect this is code for landlord licensing. I have written previously of how this will achieve nothing of the kind. As for the People Gateway, I have no knowledge – so have no opinion.

But hang on, there is a fading dream of home ownership, yet somehow Housing Association right-to-buy is bad?

These “priorities” are motherhood-and-apple pie statements, a mixture of vague hopes and tactics, which tell us little and are no help at all in deciding what’s strategically important and what isn’t. Worse still, they are “in no particular order”. If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. What else do we know?

Well, not long after the council press release was issued, councillor Tony Newman addressed housing in his leader’s blog headed “a home of your own”. He starts by lamenting the “fading dream” of home ownership. Then, via complaints about the right-to-buy policy of the government, failure over a number of years for building targets to be met and potentially reduced social housing stock in places other than Croydon, he concludes by praising his own policy of building more social housing (disguised by the code words ‘affordable housing’).

But hang on, there is a fading dream of home ownership, yet somehow Housing Association right-to-buy is bad? Indeed fulfilling that dream is “exploitation”. Furthermore, councillor Newman (who has himself previously written for the Citizen on housing) seems to think that the loss of social housing means that these homes have somehow disappeared. They were sold to tenants who became owner-occupiers, fulfilling their “fading dream”. But that’s somehow bad too?

These are real choices, with real consequences, and you can’t have everything

Whilst councillor Newman is perfectly entitled to express an opinion on government policy, Croydon Council cannot control the policy of the national government. The council is elected to make the right decisions for Croydon within the national framework. All I can distil from this blog is that councillor Newman wants to build more housing, and that he wants to build more social housing in preference to other tenures.

As I recently illustrated in a Citizen article, there is demand for all tenures of housing in Croydon. That a Labour council favours social housing at the expense of owner-occupation should not be a surprise. It is a legitimate choice, but let’s not pretend this does anything other than make the “fading dream” fade even further for those who want to own their own home.

Although one should not neglect maintaining the existing housing stock and improving its quality, the big issue is improving supply. The decisions here are what type of housing is built and where. The yardsticks against which we should measure our options are cost and how quickly the housing is available for people to move in. These are the real choices with real consequences because you can’t have everything. More of one means less of another.

When there is a shortage of a resource, the resource will be deployed to the most attractive projects

There is also the reality that someone has to pay. Broadly the sale of homes at market prices pays for the construction of social housing and other community infrastructure. Increasing the proportion of social housing reduces the profitability of the site so can, for example, lead to blocks of flats being built higher than would otherwise have been the case. In extremis this can result in the ‘poor doors’ phenomenon seen in central London.

Less financially attractive may also mean that developers will prioritise other boroughs above Croydon, so we go to the back of the queue. If you want your homes built quickly then you have shot yourself in the foot.

The other necessary resource is skilled labour. At a recent meeting sponsored by the housing industry, including people from the building industry trades, they were unanimous. If there is one thing to take away from today, the chairman said, it is that we don’t have the skilled labour to support a major building programme.

Again, when there is a shortage of a resource, the resource will be deployed to the most attractive projects. If that isn’t Croydon, then we have to wait.

You may not like any of these realities, but that does not make them go away. Muddled thinking, unclear priorities, lack of understanding of the strategic choices and not recognising the realities risks Croydon losing out. On current evidence, we should be concerned.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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