Cllr Nick Paget-Brown is the former Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council.
The Grenfell Tower fire on 14th June was a huge tragedy. Since that time, my thoughts and sympathies have been with the victims and everybody affected by the worst fire in London since the end of the Second World War. The public inquiry into its causes and the devastating speed with which it spread is now underway, and I will help it in any way that I can.
In recent years, London Boroughs have faced unparalleled pressures on housing. London’s population has risen from 7.5 million in 2006 to more than 8.5 million in 2016. The London Plan requires an additional 730 homes to be built in Kensington and Chelsea each year, a place where land prices are the most expensive in England and there are few large sites. At the same time, older properties and high rise flats are now in need of refurbishment. Part of the solution in RBKC was to create more homes on council-owned land as we started to regenerate and re-build a number of our post-war estates. By starting with those that needed most work doing to them, the intention was to increase the densities to the same levels that prevail in the most sought-after parts of the Borough where mansion blocks are commonplace. All tenants and resident leaseholders would have been offered new homes in these developments and there would have been additional homes for sale or rent. So we would have built more homes of better quality for local people with sustained investment in the stock. Under this policy there would have been no “social cleansing”.
Clearly, since the tragedy of Grenfell Tower these plans are now cancelled or deferred. The Government and the council have rightly prioritised the provision of housing for those affected by the fire. The difficulty of identifying and funding those replacement homes has highlighted the scale of the housing problem that London faces. The council still has 2,000 people in temporary accommodation and unless we build more homes on our own land, this number will continue to grow.
Every London Borough faces a similar challenge as housing policy contains too many objectives which often conflict. Specifically, it is hard to see where new housing will come from in expensive parts of London, but boroughs like this still have to meet their statutory obligation to house London’s growing population. With restrictions on council borrowing, extensive and imaginative regeneration schemes will require partnerships with private developers. The Government also needs to give a clear lead on whether existing social housing should be managed by councils, by tenants through ALMOs, or by housing associations. Reducing rents by one per cent a year for four years, as required by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, will result in less money for repairs and maintenance. The Homelessness Reduction Act will add to the pressures on councils to find more homes for rent. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 initially sought to require Councils to sell high value homes to fund “Right to Buy” discounts for Housing Association tenants. That now seems to have disappeared into the “long-grass”, but would have greatly altered our demographics over time.
In addition to addressing the needs of all those affected by the Grenfell fire, my successors will have to grapple with these issues. They will need the constructive assistance and support of DCLG as well as Kensington’s new MP. She will have insights gained from serving on the board of the KCTMO and dealing with issues of rents, repairs and capital works. She also has valuable experience working with Housing Associations and sitting on the council’s Housing and Planning committees.
I recognise the need to have a new team to rise to these challenges. I have greatly enjoyed my years on the Council representing the residents of Brompton & Hans Town and most recently serving as Leader of the Council. However, my continuation as a councillor is likely to serve as a distraction as the council lobbies the Government to address these issues and I have therefore decided not to stand again as a candidate at next year’s elections.