England & Wales Housing and planning, Welfare and equalities

Councils have earned their place

Image courtesy of Brent Council

Brent Leader, Cllr Muhammed Butt writes for us about the council’s Poverty Commission and the very clear link that the report draws between the housing crisis and persistent poverty.

This article is part of our Post-Covid Councils work focusing on Place and Community.

Brent has long been a borough in which far too many households are unable to make ends meet. Though this council, across successive administrations, has worked tirelessly to tackle and mitigate the many challenges this throws up, like so many other places, we’d never managed to find an actual solution. To that end, earlier this year, Cllr Eleanor Southwood, with the support of her Cabinet colleagues, agreed to secure the services of Lord Richard Best, former Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for the purposes of establishing an independent commission to investigate the cause and consequence of poverty in Brent.

Councils have earned their place
Cllr Muhammed Butt, Leader of Brent Council

While the Commission got underway prior to the pandemic, its lines of enquiry were of course uniquely affected by the way in which the virus took hold of our borough. For example, differences in standards of wellbeing between relatively rich and relatively poor communities were understood pre-Covid. But with evidence showing far higher death rates in Brent’s deprived communities the true and full extent of these unacceptable inequalities has been brutally and tragically exposed. The borough’s complicated employment reality was similarly laid bare by lockdown. With one of the highest levels of furloughed workers in the country and a massive rise in need for support from the welfare system, already hard-pressed households have struggled to cope.

In briefing the commissioners, Cllr Southwood was keen to ensure they appreciated the complex interdependencies that make up Brent’s many and varied socio-economic challenges. Chief among them, the paradox of far too many of our residents having to pay, both literally and figuratively, the full price for living in one of the world’s most expensive cities without ever really benefiting from the wealth that it appears to create. Armed with this direction, Lord Best and colleagues quickly recognised that a high proportion of poorer households were being thrust into poverty and deprivation by the compounding pressures of low paid or insecure work and high costs of living, primarily in the form of privately rented housing.

Hearing powerful first-hand accounts from residents, local representatives, and relevant experts, the Commission found that a third of all households and, shockingly, more than forty percent of children lived below the poverty line. Although employment status and income levels are an important factor, the Commission agreed that the common denominator in the majority of cases was a lack of good quality affordable housing and subsequent dependence on an extortionate private rental market. In making its recommendations the Commission acknowledged that Brent was already working to address the chronic shortage in social housing. It was noted that we are on track to deliver 5000 brand new affordable homes by 2023, with the highest number of units under construction in London for two consecutive years, including 700 currently underway. Nevertheless, Lord Best was adamant that our already ambitious plans be further bolstered and that we use every resource at our disposal – including making full use of our borrowing powers – to urgently and permanently improve Brent’s housing system.

As well as building its way out of the problem the Commission has also urged the council to launch an in-depth review of Brent’s sizeable PRS. It’s worth pointing out that the likes of i4B and First Wave Housing – both wholly owned companies established to acquire and manage rental stock on an affordable and ethical basis – are making tangible progress in this field. That said, our efforts to better regulate the wider market took a step back earlier this year when the government rejected our case for additional landlord licensing powers. Regardless, so much more needs to be done and we are determined to heed the words of the Commission and will soon put that work in motion.

In closing, as sobering as it has been to be presented with these unvarnished findings, we are nonetheless heartened by Lord Best’s assessment that local government has performed admirably throughout the Covid crisis, and indeed the years of austerity preceding it. With luck, his recommendations will carry weight with decision makers in Whitehall such that boroughs like ours might once again receive the support they deserve.

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