Cllr Grace Williams sees housing as the biggest challenge of her council leadership.
Many questions are asked about the price, location and number of homes being delivered in Waltham Forest, both by the council itself and private developers.
Seven months after assuming the role, the borough’s Labour leader is clear about her party’s chief ambition is driving growth and balancing the books.
She said: “We have to work with what we’ve got, and we do a very good job of that in terms of getting the best for residents.
“Some residents want to stay in a permanent position, but we can’t just sit and wait for the government [to help].”
“Look at Walthamstow town centre”, she said. “We’ve been able to build a new cinema, restaurants, a new theatre which will launch at the end of the year. That’s been the result of growth or developments.”
Cllr Williams said a lack of government funding is the reason only a fifth of the 3,300 homes in the Waltham Forest’s own building pipeline will be available at social rent. That’s rent charged by the council and housing associations that is considered ‘genuinely affordable’ and usually for people on the housing waiting list.
To pay for the social rent, affordable and shared ownership flats, half of the homes in the council’s upcoming developments will be sold at market prices.
She argues that the housing crisis is out of the council’s control and the reason there aren’t more traditional council homes.
She said: “It’s best we can do now given that we don’t have any national government support. In London we have a city where people cannot afford to live, basically it’s a national crisis where housing is out of control.”
Cllr Williams let out an exasperated laugh at the borough’s house building figures over the last decade.
In 2013-14 the number of social rent homes shrank by 234 homes as council and housing association homes were sold off, but none were built to replace them. Since then the overall number of social rent homes has grown by less than a hundred a year.
The politician knows the housing crisis and the scale of the challenge facing the council are not laughing matters. More than ten thousand households are on the waiting list for social homes and the maximum housing allowance residents are eligible for is lower than the average private rent. This has forced more than a thousand households into temporary housing, often located in cheaper parts of London or the south east.
Worst still, recent reporting in the Waltham Forest Echo has shown more than 200 cases where families in temporary housing were put in a heart-wrenching dilemma, forced to choose between accepting a tenancy far from their home and support network or be declared ‘voluntarily homeless’ and lose further support.
Cllr Williams said: !Does the council have a policy of moving people out of the south east of England? We have a policy of housing people where they can afford it. It’s a national scandal that that is not in London and is not nearby. Actually if you look at where we house people, you can see that over time it’s further and further out as housing costs have gone up.
“We can place a family in the borough but they wouldn’t be able to eat, to heat their house, to clothe their children, that’s the basic problem we have. The benefit cap means families can’t afford to live here.”
One reason voters should have confidence in Waltham Forest Labour, she added, is the “brilliant track record” it has in balancing the books.
The lack of cuts in the recent budget may raise eyebrows for some, as the council’s overall reserves has fallen from £126 million in March 2021 to £93 million this month but Cllr Williams denied this was an “election giveaway”, adding: “The greatest responsibility we have is to manage money well and [that’s] not just during election year.”
At last month’s budget meeting, when the borough’s share of council tax was raised 1.99 per cent, the council leadership also set aside £2 million to support struggling families. While details of the programme are so far thin, Cllr Williams explained its goal was to provide a “sustainable safety net” for Waltham Forest’s most stretched families, adding: “Because we do not have it in our gift to get them more benefits, what employment family support can we offer?”
She said “about 50 families a week” come to the council facing eviction or struggling to afford food. To help them, the council has already overspent £1.3 million in discretionary housing allowance funding from the government.
“It’s really limited and we’re overspending it,” Cllr Williams said. “We’re making sure we’re offering other help… but the basic thing is there’s not enough help in the national benefit and housing system for the families that we’re talking about. We’re particularly affected in Waltham Forest because we are on the edge of London and are a small borough where we have less land and less social housing.”
Concerns are frequently voiced about the height of new buildings and the borough’s loss of green spaces. Recently, at Lea Bridge Road, the council’s planning committee approved two towers at 26 and 23 storeys high that will stand gateway-like at the entrance of the borough in Lea Bridge Road.
Cllr Williams could not explain why towers of this height were deemed visually acceptable by planning officers or why the council doesn’t yet have an up-to-date tall building policy.
But, defending the decision, she said: “The thing is we live in a city, space is very much an asset… We need to use the land have got to the best effect we can.
“Lea Bridge is one example of a place where we can really deliver on our affordable housing target, we’ve been able to have 45 per cent affordable homes there.
“We all need to realise that we need more housing in London and be really clear that housing brings other benefits to residents.”
There was however, a tacit acceptance that residents are feeling powerless in the way growth is being realised in the borough.
She admitted: “I do think one thing we need to do more, as a matter of priority, is [think about] how to work with hyper local communities. For example, how to work with the residents of Lea Bridge so they can get involved.”