How London’s most ambitious housebuilding council is delivering genuinely affordable homes

In the face of crippling austerity, growing income inequality and an affordable homes crisis in London, Labour councils like Ealing are reviving a new municipalism. With a programme of building over 3,000 new homes in the next year, Ealing is amongst a pioneering group of Labour councils that have been quietly delivering new social homes over the last few years despite the odds being stacked against us.

Ealing Labour has the most ambitious affordable housing target in London, pledging in our bold 2018 local election manifesto to deliver 2,500 genuinely affordable homes by 2022. With over 1,000 London Affordable Rent homes in the pipeline, we’re well on our way to hitting our target and delivering the next generation of social homes for Ealing.

Using our own land, money and people, in the last week of June alone we secured the future of 337 new social rent homes in our borough, delivered directly by the council. Without needing to satisfy profit seeking shareholders, our developments can go far beyond the typical levels of affordable homes seen in developments built by the private sector.

On the High Lane estate in Hanwell, where residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of comprehensive regeneration in London’s first council run estate ballot, 49% of new homes will meet our definition of ‘genuinely affordable’. At Copley Close, the next phase of regeneration will be 60% genuinely affordable.

Even in the suburbs, house prices in London mean that the Tory government’s definition of ‘affordable’ homes isn’t fit for purpose. For Ealing Labour, genuinely affordable homes must cost no more than one third of average incomes. Add into the mix intermediate housing, such as shared ownership, and the rates of affordable homes being delivered directly by the council are substantially higher than the private sector offer.

We are also demanding more from private developers. By standing firm on our requirement that developments must deliver significant numbers of homes at social rents, we’re sending developers a clear message that the days of lowballing their affordable offers are over. The financial trickery of viability assessments is also finally out in the open after we started releasing viability reports publicly earlier this year.

But the emerging new municipalism on display in London, and the role of the private sector, is not without legitimate criticism. With planning regulations hardwired to protect developer profits, alongside directives from central government that local plans must confirm to the National Planning Policy Framework, the same structures set up to deliver housing growth are being used to prevent it.

When it comes to private developments, councils face the challenge of trying to negotiate the best possible deal on social housing while knowing that the government’s Planning Inspectorate could overturn our decisions if the developer can demonstrate they can’t make a profit. Meanwhile, councils continue to leverage as many social homes we can secure, and as many financial contributions to schools, healthcare and infrastructure as we can get.

Ambitious Labour councils are also constrained by the rules of our financialised property market. Regulation of local government finance means that councils can’t, unlike central government, run ‘borrow to invest’ budget deficits, and meagre central government investment in social housing simply isn’t enough to offset the spiralling cost of land and construction.

As if anyone needed more evidence of the benefits of Labour in power, our Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has stepped in where central government has failed. With a £99m grant from City Hall, Ealing Council is getting on with building even more genuinely affordable homes.

In an ideal world, councils would be building homes at the scale and pace seen in the post-war years. Public investment in regions outside of London would secure a more balanced economy, providing decent well-paid jobs outside of London and relieving the pressure on land within the capital. Until we have a Labour government to deliver the wider structural change we desperately need, ambitious Labour councils like Ealing will continue to build, albeit against some significant odds.

This article first appeared in LabourList on the 4th of July