Who you gonna call?

OonaKing4x3 (1)Oona King on the local impact of shifting government attitudes towards social housing

About a year or so after I first became MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, a group of residents came to my advice surgery to complain about the conditions in their tower block – Brodick House. Nothing unusual in that you might think. Until I tell you that one of their concerns was a luminous green gunge oozing out of the electrical sockets.

It turned out this wasn’t a scene from Ghostbusters come to life in the East End.  The wiring was so long past its sell-by date that it was melting its plastic coating. Tenants themselves were equally bothered by the wind blowing through their windows, the leaking pipework, unreliable lifts, dodgy heating and junkies in the stairwell. But the ghostly gunge always struck me as emblematic of Brodick House’s malaise.

By 1997, Tower Hamlets Council’s 40,000 homes had suffered from almost two decades of under-investment by the Thatcher government and a dodgy Liberal council. Roofs were leaking. Windows were rotting. Bathrooms were damp. And kitchens were falling apart.  

Many blocks deserved to be condemned as uninhabitable. But instead, they were home to thousands of young families and older people. That’s why I was so supportive of Labour’s pledge to bring all social housing up to a decent standard. Of course, with the need to focus scarce funding on new social housing that meant John Prescott was forced to continue transferring council stock to housing associations.

In Tower Hamlets, stock transfers to locally-based housing associations had initially proved successful. Old Ford Housing, Poplar HARCA and Tower Hamlets Community Housing all put tenants at the heart of decision-making for the future of their estates.  But the bigger associations who moved in later didn’t always take that approach. And with the rise of Defend Council Housing, stock transfer became deeply controversial.

After the failure of several transfer ballots, the Labour council rightly switched track and established an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) for its remaining council homes. In 2009, with basic housing management improving, Labour’s Housing Minister, John Healey, promised Tower Hamlets would get £222million to bring homes up to a decent standard.

We all know what happened next. Newly-elected Coalition ministers went through the capital investment programme with a scythe. The Homes and Communities Agency’s budget was cut by almost two-thirds in the 2010 Spending Review. Tower Hamlets’ funding was cut to just £94million. 

Worse still, that funding was ‘backloaded’ – with just a quarter available in the first two years. Despite that skewed spending profile, ministers insisted on ridiculously high numbers of homes being brought up to a decent standard with the money.  This forced Tower Hamlets Council to focus on the ‘low hanging fruit’ of homes that were in the least worst condition.

In the past two years, a hundred maisonettes on the St Stephen’s Estate have received new kitchens and bathrooms, while tenants in Brodick House – which sits in the middle of it – have had nothing. I despair of a government that forces those in the worst housing conditions to wait longest for improvement works – wilfully ignoring their impact on the education, health and life chances of the children living there.

Thanks to determined campaigning by tenants, Brodick House has now been included in next year’s decent homes programme.  That is welcome, but there are thousands more families in equally poor conditions in other blocks. Meanwhile, as Save the Children recently reminded us, the number of overcrowded young families in London is growing year on year as the Coalition runs down social housing again like a re-run of the 1980s.

We got Brodick House re-wired in the end and the green gunge is no more. But to this day, Ray Parker Junior’s lyrics spring to my mind every time I walk past the block on the way to my children’s school. One thing’s for sure. If there’s something strange in your tower block …. don’t bother calling Eric Pickles!

Baroness Oona King of Bow is a backbench Labour Peer, and former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow 

Published 7th February 2013

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