Housing MJ: Stepping out of the shadows

By Cllr Kim Taylor-Smith | 30 August 2020

Kensington and Chelsea faces a unique set of housing challenges.

We have the highest land value in the UK, we are the third most densely populated London borough, and we have the second highest level of homelessness in the UK.

That is before considering that the Grenfell Tower tragedy happened here. Grenfell has changed our housing services forever and will continue to define us as a borough.

For these reasons, we have no alternative but to consider policy change centred around mixed tenure.

Mixed tenure housing schemes are proven to enhance social inclusion and facilitate healthier communities, which is essential in a borough as diverse as ours. That diversity is Kensington and Chelsea’s greatest asset, and needs protecting and enhancing in the face of strong economic forces including the housing shortage, but as a council we do not think that the value of mixed tenure stops there.

There has always been an element of ‘social distancing’ with developments split into mansion blocks, social housing and intermediate housing.

The council has strongly advocated breaking down these barriers and creating truly mixed schemes.

For example, when we recently bought back 109 homes built on council land, we allocated the vast majority for social rent, to reflect our borough’s most pressing need. We will also be trialling a keyworker housing policy for the first time.

In recognition of the difficulty that NHS and education staff find in commuting into the borough to work here, a pilot keyworker accommodation scheme is using the ‘London Living Rent’ calculation to provide 14 homes for workers in these sectors whose income otherwise makes it near impossible to live near their work.

By taking a pilot approach we can understand the need, and whether London Living Rent is truly affordable for those that we want to target with a keyworker housing policy.

At the time of writing, although we have not concluded our advertising campaign, we are almost 14 times oversubscribed.

At a time where COVID-19 has really shone a light on the heroic work our keyworkers do in selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way to look after us and our families, it is right that we do all we can to provide them with intermediate, genuinely affordable housing – right for them, and right for our communities whose current and future wellbeing directly depends on them.

That is just the start. For the first time in decades, the council has its own development programme, comprising 600 new homes. We have committed that at least 300 of those will be council homes for social rent, and we will drive the greatest overall amount of social rent and keyworker homes, with only as many private rented homes as needed to make the programme viable. But these new social rent and keyworker homes only go a small way to tackling the challenges we face as a borough.

We need developers to follow our lead and maximise the amount of social and intermediate housing that they provide. We passed a community housing supplementary planning document, giving us teeth to require that developers play their part in delivering more mixed-tenure schemes.

Of course, new homes will only ever make up a small fraction of our stock. We need to make better use of all the homes within our borough.

We have a £12m programme for buying back properties sold under the right to buy. This is vital for councils if they are to retain current levels of social housing, let alone add more.

As part of our innovative range of support for Grenfell survivors, we offer them an opportunity to buy a home on the private market wherever they would like, with a ‘portable discount’ similar to that which they’d get when exercising a regular right to buy.

This has supported a handful of residents to realise their dream of home ownership and is a scheme that we will hope to be able to expand over time.

But we have the highest percentage of empty properties in London and a high amount of homes being used as short-term lets for only a few days a year.

We want to encourage investment, but we must also work collaboratively with our landlords to make best use of the stock that we have.

That is why we are considering a scheme to offer to manage homes for landlords as keyworker accommodation. This would target owners of homes that we believe are being left empty to bring them back into use.

We have made some strong progress over the past year, and we are committed to continuing to address the societal issues that Grenfell amplified. We will keep driving a progressive housing policy that delivers good-quality homes that offer an affordable future in Kensington and Chelsea for everyone in our communities.

Cllr Kim Taylor-Smith is the deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea LBC and the lead member for housing, Grenfell and social investment

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