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Call for government to ‘play its part’ as Tower Hamlets returns to social housing

PUBLISHED: 17:05 06 September 2017 | UPDATED: 19:25 06 September 2017

Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs (left) arrives with London Mayor Sadiq Khan to open new Watts Grove housing scheme. Picture: Mike Brooke

Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs (left) arrives with London Mayor Sadiq Khan to open new Watts Grove housing scheme. Picture: Mike Brooke

Mike Brooke

New social housing is on the way to make a political come-back in London’s East End with its desperate shortage after today’s official opening of Tower Hamlets Council’s Watts Grove estate.

Tower Hamlets Homes chief Susmita Sen takes Mayor Khan on tour of Watts Grove. Picture: Mike Brooke Tower Hamlets Homes chief Susmita Sen takes Mayor Khan on tour of Watts Grove. Picture: Mike Brooke

But the government “must play its part” and give town halls the funds to do more, London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan said.

He arrived in Bow Common on a council minibus with Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs to cut the ribbon where 147 families taken off the 18,000-long waiting list—one of the worse in London—have been rehoused.

The new estate is being run by the council’s own housing organisation, rather than one of the associations local authorities were forced into partnership with 11 years ago.

Some housing associations have been criticised for rocketing rents and turning former council social housing into lucrative marketing assets, rather than address poverty and the housing crisis.

London Mayor meets tenant Eric and Susan Murdoch in their new home. Picture: Mike Brooke London Mayor meets tenant Eric and Susan Murdoch in their new home. Picture: Mike Brooke

“It’s shameful that a generation of young people are being priced out of the place they grew up in,” Mayor Khan said.

“I inherited a system where just 13 per cent of homes given planning permission were affordable, which is unacceptable.

“Turning things round will take time and fixing the housing crisis will be a marathon, not a sprint.

“I will use my powers and resources to their fullest extent, but the government needs to play its part by giving London what we need to raise the number of homes we can build.”

One-year-old Lamya Seif helps two mayors cut the cake at Watts Grove. Picture: Mike Brooke One-year-old Lamya Seif helps two mayors cut the cake at Watts Grove. Picture: Mike Brooke

He met the first tenants in their new homes who had just moved into the £20 million Watts Grove scheme, built on the site of a former council refuse depot, presenting them with bunches of flowers to mark his visit.

The families in turn invited him to a garden party where he cut a big cake for the opening, aided by one of Watts Grove’s youngest residents, one-year-old Lamya Seif.

The four blocks of flats, 13 terrace houses and 13 wheelchair-adapted properties are the first of a programme of new social rental dwellings planned by Tower Hamlets council, to keep families together in the East End without having to move away.

East London’s soaring property prices, like the rest of the capital, has pushed many low-income families out, with critics labelling it “social cleansing”.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan meets tenant Nargis Bahar and her family at Watts Grove. Picture: Kois Miah London Mayor Sadiq Khan meets tenant Nargis Bahar and her family at Watts Grove. Picture: Kois Miah

Tower Hamlets’ Mayor Biggs took up the challenge when Labour regained control of the council in 2015.

He told the East London Advertiser today: “We need to go back to social housing to meet the needs of people to be able to live here. There is a need to build council housing alongside all other developments.

“But the government set a policy that ‘affordable’ rent was 80pc of the property market—that’s clearly ridiculous in London.

“This Watts Grove scheme is 100pc public housing. Yet whatever we do is never enough to cope with the frustratingly long housing waiting list—it would be far worse if we did nothing.”

Father-of-three Fajlay Chowdhury outside his new three-bed home with wife Yasmin at Watts Grove. Picture: Mike Brooke Father-of-three Fajlay Chowdhury outside his new three-bed home with wife Yasmin at Watts Grove. Picture: Mike Brooke

Watts Grove hasn’t been without controversy, after initially being ‘shelved’ when the cash ran out in 2013 under the previous independent administration.

People’s Alliance Opposition leader Rabina Khan insisted: “The development was never scrapped, but was paused to secure additional funding from the GLA and restarted in 2014 (before Labour took over).

“The council has just been recognised by the GLA as having built more new social housing than any other council and awarded the government’s ‘New Homes’ bonus.

“The vast majority of that housing was commissioned under my leadership. Building housing takes a long time!”

Time for a cuppa for Eric's wife Susan after the mayor's hectic visit to Watts Grove. Picture: Mike Brooke Time for a cuppa for Eric's wife Susan after the mayor's hectic visit to Watts Grove. Picture: Mike Brooke

Today’s official Watts Grove opening comes on the day Labour’s London Mayor Khan announces a £250m City Hall kitty to buy and prepare land for 90,000 low-rent homes across London by 2021.

Private tenants and landlords are also being brought together to create a new ‘London Model’ for the one-in-four households in the rented sector—similar to the Renters’ Charter launched by Tower Hamlets earlier this year.

Money from selling land to builders is to be “recycled” to buy up more space for social housing. The Mayor is recruiting ‘deal makers’ to find and prepare new sites, with statutory powers including Compulsory Purchase where necessary.

It marks a full circle back to the housing priorities of the post-war 1950s and 60s and an end of the austere 1990s when local authorities were barred from borrowing funds, which brought social housing to a virtual halt.

The special housing fund comes on top of the £3 billion ‘affordable housing budget’ City Hall has negotiated with the government.

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