Under the new Mayor Lutfur Rahman, LB Tower Hamlets has cancelled their affordable self-build programme, which was approved and initiated by the previous Labour administration. This decision not only applies to future site releases, but also confirms that the council will not be proceeding with three projects already underway in the borough, since 2021. Alternative plans for these sites and for self-build in the borough are unclear.
Devastation and wasted investment
This news has been devastating to the small community groups, who had been planning their lives around their projects, and who had put in considerable effort in resolving issues and overcoming challenges with sites and planning constraints.
It also wastes years of work by council officers and support from Community Led Housing London in designing the programme and working with groups. We estimate at least £250,000 public funding has been wasted on the projects. The council also received GLA funding to de-risk that sites and government funding to staff the programme, meaning the actual cost to the Council was minimal. In return for years of effort the self-build groups have been offered a paltry £5k compensation.
A missed opportunity
The primary reason cited for Mayor Rahman’s decision in Tower Hamlets has been his manifesto commitment to providing new council housing. This is undoubtably a laudable aim. The previous Labour administration had similar aims. However, they recognised that development on small sites is notoriously difficult. Physical and legal constraints make the process of securing planning and finance resource intensive, and construction expensive. Sites were selected for the affordable self-build programme precisely because they would be difficult for the council to develop itself. Allowing residents to build their own homes made use of sites equivalent to 1.5% of the council housebuilding target at the time.
It is unlikely that affordable homes will come forward on these complex sites without the work of self-builders. If the sites were auctioned, they may have been privately developed for market sale homes, with no planning obligations for any affordable housing in schemes smaller than 10 units. Although it’s hard for anyone, not least self-build groups, to provide social rented homes, particularly on such small sites, they would have seen intermediate low-cost ownership tenures, which are also a legitimate part of the housing mix needed in London.
While a political change of direction may be used to justify not continuing with the programme of intended site releases, there is something uncomfortable about cancelling active community-led affordable housing projects with heads of terms agreed and planning applications being prepared. Particularly when there are no immediate alternatives for those sites.
Community led housing offers a potential solution to very small sites. It is a shame to see some unique examples of community-led self-build, cohousing, and co-operative housing in Tower Hamlets lost due to this move. We wait with interest to see what will happen with the sites now.