More than 1,000 homes across London have been unfairly labelled ‘obsolete’ by the Mayor and local councils in bids to demolish them.
The Mayor’s funding guidance allows grants to be claimed for demolition only if the homes are defined as ‘obsolete’, but Sian Berry was shocked to find out the scale and inconsistency of the use of this exception.
And while the exception was only to apply if councils can prove the home is obsolete, Sian’s research reveals City Hall has been collecting no evidence whatsoever from councils in their bids for funding.
Last year, the Mayor of London admitted to me that, since 2021, he had given out new housebuilding grants to demolish and replace 1,008 homes defined as ‘obsolete’.
This is despite specific grant conditions in the new 2021-26 GLA Affordable Homes Programme guidance, to prevent the Mayor’s funding going towards demolition in all but exceptional circumstances. In 2021, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Residential Development, Tom Copley, said in response to questions about the new conditions: “The reality is there will be very little available to buy homes for demolition on estate regeneration schemes.”
But putting more than one thousand homes in line for demolition is far more than a rare exception to the new policy. London has a long and sorry history of dodgy estate demolition. Now, despite the Mayor’s promises, this loop lets it continue on the same kind of scale.
With my team in City Hall, I set out to investigate why so many social housing providers are using this loophole in the new policy to claim public subsidy for their demolition schemes. We asked each council area named in the Mayor’s response to my original question, whether any of their own estates were included in their applications, and what their justification to the Mayor was for defining homes as ‘obsolete’ if so.
We also followed up with the Mayor to ask him what reasons he was accepting from Councils using this loophole. In one of his answers he said: “In identifying obsolete homes councils and social landlords were guided by the definition of obsolete homes available in GLA Affordable housing capital funding guide. No further criteria or information on this was collected at bidding stage for the Affordable housing 2021-26 programme.”
The definition of ‘obsolete’ was therefore being left by the Mayor for councils and housing associations to decide for themselves.
The GLA document, Homes For Londoners: Affordable Homes Programme 2021-26 Funding Guidance, published in November 2020 states that: “Funding will not be available for units that replace homes that have been, or will be, demolished. Where homes have become obsolete the GLA will consider funding these replacement homes in exceptional circumstances, and only as part of a scheme that will increase the number of homes overall.”
The GLA’s Capital Funding Guide states that: “AHP 21-26 grant can be used for new homes which are replacing existing homes, only where those existing homes are obsolete. An obsolete home is defined as one where an affordable home is no longer considered by the landlord to be capable for letting for long term tenancies for reasons pertaining to condition, type or building standards, regulations or safety. The replacement of obsolete homes will only be funded when they are part of a project that also delivers a net increase in affordable housing. The GLA will only provide funding for replacement of obsolete homes on an exceptional basis.”
In total, six out of the seven councils claiming grants for their own schemes responded to Sian’s information requests about their definitions used:
> Three councils (Barnet, Camden and Ealing) simply cited the GLA funding conditions, which effectively leave it up to councils themselves to define what ‘obsolete’ means, and did not give details of their assessments.
> Two of these councils (Barnet and Camden) said they mainly relied upon resident consent for defining their homes as ‘obsolete’.
> Three councils (Enfield, Hounslow and Lewisham) gave more details, citing problems including with stock condition, safety or the size and accessibility of homes.
> Three councils (Richmond upon Thames, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea) told us they had not claimed the grants, meaning that housing associations in the boroughs had made the applications. The Mayor has refused to provide any details of which housing providers have claimed these grants, and it is not currently possible to use freedom of information rights to get answers from housing associations.
> Lambeth Council refused to provide any information in response to freedom of information or councillor questions.
On the ground with my team, I have been visiting estates affected, and it is clear that the definition of ‘obsolete’ doesn’t always relate to the design or original construction quality of homes.
Read more here and watch my video:
It is a scandal that so many homes are being condemned to the wrecking ball unfairly by councils and housing associations, when most of the problems residents are facing with cold and damp homes are down to simple neglect and lack of maintenance, and when problems with access or services could be tackled through refurbishment.
It’s a scandal that the Mayor of London is willing to subsidise these demolitions through a back-door route that he claimed to have closed.
I genuinely thought the new grant rules would help to stem the tide of demolition London has suffered and incentivise more projects focused on refurbishment instead.
To see the Mayor condemn over a thousand homes in just the first year of these new grants feels like a betrayal of an important ‘retrofit first’ principle we had agreed was better for Londoners.