The 16,200 people on Southwark’s council home waiting list need somewhere to go. The council is determined to house them properly. But where, in a borough that can sometimes feel so crowded? This was among the biggest questions we reported on this year.
The so-called ‘infill’ programme is part of the council’s answer – building new blocks on estates that already exist. But hundreds of people have marched and signed petitions against the new blocks, arguing that they will suffer loss of light, privacy and open space.
About 30 estates in Southwark so far have ‘infill’ plans as defined by the council. In September, we created a map that highlighted 53 sites with infill, rooftop extensions, garage conversions slated for estates across Southwark, the vast majority of which are currently in consultation phases with residents.
Anti-infill activists have often called on the council to focus on requisitioning empty homes to help meet its housing targets. Although a growing problem in the borough – the number of empty homes rose from 523 in 2019 to more than 3,600 in 2020 – bringing every empty home back into use would only scratch the surface of the council housing shortage, as we reported in April.
Right to Buy and the skyrocketing cost of land in London present more problems. Southwark has no control over the Right to Buy policy, which was brought in under Margaret Thatcher and allows people to buy their own council homes at a knockdown price.
The cost of land means often the council is priced out of building on areas that it does not already own. One plot on Ilderton Road was given an existing use value of £1.8m and then put on the market for a staggering £15m.
One of the key complaints from anti-infill activists that we reported on time and again this year was that consultation by the council about new schemes was ineffective. The council has always maintained that proper consultation has taken place.
A side issue that grabbed headlines this year was the resignation in February of the council’s cabinet member for council housing, Leo Pollak. Cllr Pollak was found to have been running an anonymous Twitter account that posted in favour of the council’s own schemes and got into arguments with anti-infill activists. Cllr Pollak apologised. An independent investigation found that he had broken the council’s code of conduct but recommended no further action be taken.
London mayor Sadiq Khan gave a strong show of support to Southwark’s infill policy in an interview with the News in December.
Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP Neil Coyle refused to give an outright answer when asked in September, arguing that “each building and site are different”. He was broadly supportive of the policy, adding “in some cases it needs tweaking but overall I think the public do support it.”
His fellow Southwark MPs Harriet Harman and Helen Hayes did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
The council is set to meet its target of 2,500 homes finished or being built by May 2022, when the next local elections take place.
The Liberal Democrats have been critical of the infill policy so it appears likely that if they were to get in power for the first time since 2010, council housing plans could change.
Whatever happens, it is important not to lose sight of the human side of the story. Living in crowded, inadequate housing is a terrible hardship that can have myriad knock-on effects on the rest of people’s lives. Current Southwark social housing chief Stephanie Cryan told us in September that she felt a moral duty to get people in the borough housed properly.
And people also have a right to be heard – and listened to – when they express their opinion about plans to build on their estates.