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Revealed: Former social homes come back under council control in multi-million buy-back project

PUBLISHED: 12:00 20 September 2019

Several flats in Oban House, E14 were bought back by the council last year. Picture: Polly Hancock

Several flats in Oban House, E14 were bought back by the council last year. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Tower Hamlets Council spent more than £60million last year buying back old right-to-buy properties to house the homeless.

The local authority acquired several properties in Sleaford House, which was built in the 1960s. Picture: Polly HancockThe local authority acquired several properties in Sleaford House, which was built in the 1960s. Picture: Polly Hancock

Accounting documents obtained by the Advertiser reveal the council acquired 162 homes in 2017/18 and paid a total of £60.4m.

Most of the properties back under Tower Hamlets Council's control are inside the borough, and crucially include 94 from Poplar Harca housing association.

It comes despite the stated aim in the council's homelessness strategy to reduce the number of families in temporary accommodation.

A spokesman for Tower Hamlets Council said: "Properties purchased through this buy-back project are used for providing a safe and secure place to live for households in our borough that would otherwise be homeless.

"Like many urban areas across the UK, Tower Hamlets is experiencing a housing crisis. We have committed to delivering 2,000 new council homes by 2022 but it is also important that we ensure our temporary housing stock continues to grow."

In March the ELA revealed that 3,000 former social homes have passed into private hands in Tower Hamlets since right to buy, which allows long-standing council tenants to buy their homes at a discount, came into force in the 1980s.

More than a tenth were bought for £25,000 or less and later re-sold by for tens of millions of pounds.

Most of the homes Tower Hamlets has re-acquired are in the E3 and E14 postcode areas and cost between £300,000 and £500,000.

Talbot House in Giraud Street, where ex-council flats were re-purchased for between �250,000 and �314,000. Picture: Polly HancockTalbot House in Giraud Street, where ex-council flats were re-purchased for between �250,000 and �314,000. Picture: Polly Hancock

They include a cluster of flats in Oban House, an ex-council block in Poplar built in the 1930s, and Sleaford House in Bromley-by-Bow, which dates back to the 1960s.

The most expensive homes were a flat in Karslake House in Gibraltar Walk, Shoreditch for £503,000 and a flat in Rosebank Gardens, Mile End for £503,000.

A scattering of properties were also bought further afield in Lewisham and Bexley.

In 2017 the council allocated £119m to buy new homes from developers as well as surplus housing from providers in the borough, which included £19m to buy back homes from Poplar Harca.

Several flats in Oban House, E14 were bought back by the council last year. Picture: Polly HancockSeveral flats in Oban House, E14 were bought back by the council last year. Picture: Polly Hancock

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The social landlord took over 9,000 properties on former council estates in the East End 17 years ago.

The council has clashed with Poplar Harca in the past, with Mayor John Biggs criticising increased car-parking fees in 2016 and backing a protest against the auctioning-off of 50 vacant properties in 2017.

A Poplar Harca spokeswoman said: "We work with the council to help them meet their commitment to homeless households.

"This includes the council buying 94 empty Poplar Harca properties in the last financial year to be used to keep homeless households in the borough."

The council now owns about 12,200 housing assets including houses, flats, bungalows and garages.

In March 2018 there were 22,000 people on the waiting list for social housing and around 2,000 households in temporary accommodation.

According to figures released by national charity Shelter last year, the borough is the 10th worst for homelessness in the UK.

As well as the cost of the properties themselves the accounts reveal that Tower Hamlets paid £227,940 to chartered surveyors Copping Joyce LLP to source properties, value them and negotiate prices.

The council also spent £262,904 for legal advice and services such as Land Registry fees related to the buy-backs.

The spokesman added: "We are also leading players in two pan-London projects aimed at changing the way temporary accommodation is delivered for London's homeless.

"Capital Letters will lease properties from private owners on behalf of the involved boroughs collectively, delivering a joint and wider-reaching portfolio.

"PLACE will use innovative modular housing units to increase the supply of high quality temporary accommodation for homeless households."

Financial documents related to the buy-backs were obtained under a little-known piece of legislation, the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.

The Act, which was extended to journalists in 2017, allows residents to see and make copies of the council's accounts during a 30-day statutory window each year.

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