We are yet to fully understand the impact of the Coronavirus on the UK economy but what we do know is that without positive action and investment, recovery will be slower. Councils can play an important role in London’s recovery through council-led development and working with private and public sector landowners to plan and build for the future.
Wandsworth LBC is already committed to investing up to £500m to regenerate our estates and build 1,000 council homes. Our programme is significant and includes two major estate regeneration programmes. Alongside this is our Housing for All programme to build 1,000 council homes on infill sites. The objective is simple, to provide a mix of homes, for rent and sale, to enable people from all walks of life to live and work in our borough. One hundred homes, all for low cost rent, are now completed with the rest expected to be complete by 2027.
Construction accounts for seven percent of the UK’s GDP and nine percent of its workforce so it is important we keep these programmes on track and indeed increase their numbers. Our plans will provide a strong foundation for supporting the construction industry and the wider London economy as well as providing local jobs, supporting SMEs and continuing to supply local people with housing. That is market and affordable housing, meeting local resident demands including providing opportunities for our key workers to live more locally. Given we are home to one of the highest numbers of key workers in London with St George’s and Queen Mary’s hospitals in the borough, we want to help them live near their place of work if that is their choice.
However, I believe councils can be the catalyst for much more if the right planning, investment and levers are used to encourage cooperation. Many councils are now more experienced in master planning for regeneration and delivering homes. And while it takes many millions of pounds to master plan, the future economic gain and potential transformation it can offer is worth it. We are already working on masterplans for our town hall in Wandsworth and surrounding land holdings and we can build on these plans to do more.
Wandsworth LBC has a proven track record of sponsoring and supporting vast area regenerations. The one at Nine Elms, which includes the much-vaunted Battersea Power Station development, started the borough coming out of the last economic jolt.
Flexible forward funding from the Government can not only help us with planning but also with land assembly, enabling us to deliver additional homes, attractive employment and community spaces and importantly better environments in Inner London. I believe funding should be based on delivering outcomes with a budget to release and realise development potential that matches our local ambitions to deliver a diversity of homes for our communities. We have already made a substantial financial commitment to development in the borough and, even the most prudent of councils would require backing to do more.
However, it is not just central Government. We need support from, in our case, the Mayor of London, who needs to not stand in the way of our ambition and delivery of more homes.
The council owns land in the borough which, where we can, we will utilise - but by far the second biggest public landowner in the Borough is the NHS. There is, I believe, much to be gained through joint working; together we can not only deliver new facilities, given the Government’s £6.5bn improvement plans, but by using NHS estate land better we can deliver homes for our key workers. My offer is there to utilise the skills we have developed to plan with the NHS and other bodies. However, these relationships perhaps need a push to kick start them and indeed a reminder to follow through!
Finally, ‘Housing for All’ was one of the Capital’s biggest priorities pre-coronavirus. Decent housing is likely to be more important than ever before post virus, but market conditions could prove challenging. That is why I believe investment should not only be targeted toward affordable housing but other forms of low-cost housing which match not only with need but also the aspiration to be a homeowner. This would include schemes coming forward such as First Homes, but such homeownership products must meet the needs of the low- and middle-income people.
This is the time for all councils to be bold. We are going to need to be flexible in how we respond to the many challenges that will undoubtedly arise but, with the right Government support and funding I believe councils, working with the private and public sector, can play their part to help produce a positive new normal.
Cllr Ravi Govindia is leader of Wandsworth LBC