Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Sixth Report


Visit to Tower Hamlets — 27 November 2001

1        Members and staff participating in the visit

1.1    Members

    Andrew Bennett MP
    Clive Betts MP
    John Cummings MP
    Louise Ellman MP
    Chris Grayling MP
    Oona King MP
    Christine Russell MP

1.2  Staff

    Sarah Hartwell (Clerk)
    Claire O'Shaughnessy (Committee Specialist)
    Frances Allingham (Committee Assistant)
    Professor Christine Whitehead (Specialist Adviser)

2      Tower Hamlets

Cllr Helal Abbas (Leader), Cllr Denise Jones (Assistant Leader of the Council), Christine Gilbert (Chief Executive Designate), Sue Benjamin (Director of Housing), Paul Bloss (Assistant Director of Housing), Maureen McEleney (Acting Service Head of Housing Strategy Development and Housing Services), Steve Inkpen (Housing Regeneration Manger), Julius Adeyemi (Allocations Manager, Wapping/Stepney), Michael Conneally (Principal Grants Officer), Syed Ahmed (Principal Rehousing Manager - Stepney Housing and Development Agency), Michael Tyrrell (Chief Executive Tower Hamlets Community Housing) and Howard Sheppard of the Canary Wharf Group.

2.1  There are very few sites for new housing development in Tower Hamlets and housing density is just below twice the London average. The majority of the housing in the Borough is either very expensive or social, there is very little 'middle ground' housing.

2.2  Figures on empty properties in the borough are as follows:

Local Authority
Other social/public sector
Private sector

2.3  Short term voids in the Council sector are filled within 5 - 7 weeks. 390 of the local authority empties are long term voids being held for demolition. Within the private sector stock, 3,049 properties have been vacant for over 6 months. The Council is unable to identify exactly how many of the private sector empties are company lets and second homes but estimate from Council Tax records that the figure is around 2,500 - 3,000. The Council estimates that approximately 1,500 of the empty homes could realistically be brought back into use. The Council has a waiting list of 15,500 and describes their empty homes a being important but a 'drop in the ocean' in terms of meeting that demand.

2.4  A number of techniques are used to bring the private sector, empty homes, scattered across the Borough back into use:

    - advice and connections (eg tracing owners and making links between owners and RSLs)

    - grants for bringing properties back into use for homeless families at reasonable rents (grants increase in proportion with the number of bedrooms)

    - penalties and sanctions (eg CPO).

2.5  The Council supports schemes in which it obtains a 20-25 year lease on a house, invests sufficient funding to bring it back into use for that period and lets it out to tenants in housing need.

2.6  The Council has visited a number of northern authorities where there are a large number of empty homes. Any scheme to encourage people to move out of the Borough needs to be based on choice and people would need to be offered full packages including social services, training and employment for such an initiative to work.

3      Site visits

3.1  There are over 1,700 homes on the Ocean Estate, in a mix of styles built between 1949 and 1975. The Council has identified a direct link between poor housing and poor health on the estate. It is proposed that the existing flats will be demolished and replaced with 1,300 houses, including a number of larger flats for bigger, particularly black and ethnic minority, families. The increase in density will be achieved by better use of the open spaces between the properties and higher blocks. The demolition and replacement scheme has been agreed as the best way to provide better housing, address issues about the poor condition of the existing stock and to lever in private finance by demolishing council stock and replacing it by RSL housing.

3.2  We visited a number of flats on the estate, where the residents were suffering from severe overcrowding. One three bedroomed flat is home to twelve people and one bedroom within it is shared by two young men aged 19 and 21 and four younger girls. As well as the sleeping arrangements, the limited communal space and unmodernised kitchens and bathrooms all add to the cramped conditions. The Council is concerned that Housing Corporation funding does not create incentives for the provision of housing that meets the needs of local communities, as funding for new build is in proportion to the number of units built not the number of bedrooms.

3.3  One of the problems that the Ocean Estate NDC programme has encountered is that many residents have exercised their right to buy, since the scheme has been suggested.[334] As flats on the estate are valued at around £120,000, this has become a significant additional expense for the Council (up to £70,000 per flat) when seeking to voluntarily or compulsorily purchase the flats to enable demolition. The Council told us that the cost of repurchasing these flats was equivalent to the projected resources available to the entire housing programme through New Deal for Communities budget (approximately £25 million).

3.4  The Committee travelled past the Queen Elizabeth Hospital site which is one of the few sites in the Borough with potential for new housing development. The site has been empty for 2 years and despite proposals from RSLs, the NHS Trust has chosen to sell it to a private developer. Affordable housing will be developed on site, at 25 per cent. There is no Housing Corporation subsidy at this level of affordable housing. The Council doubts that the 50 per cent affordable housing proposed in towards a London plan can be developed without Housing Corporation subsidy.

3.5  Tarling Estate is a 15 block, low rise development, adjacent to Shadwell DLR station. A number of the blocks have been successful refurbished but two are to be demolished. The open space next to these two blocks is of very poor quality. The decant process has been very slow and flats have been empty for up to two years. The second block still has a number of residents in situ. The Council is currently consulting on new uses for the site.

334   Tower Hamlets told us that The Right To Buy (RTB) runs throughout the regeneration scheme, until a possession order is granted by the court. For this to happen an 'agreed' scheme must be in place and 'suitable alternative accommodation' needs to be available immediately. At earlier stages in the process, from consultation through to masterplan to the point at which decant status has been awarded to individual properties, Right To Buy can still be exercised. In the case of the Ocean Estate, the planning and consultation period lasted for two years. Back

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