Published: 14 August, 2015
by THEO BLACKWELL
PUBLIC services for residents face two major financial challenges: money to fund ongoing services and money for council homes, schools and infrastructure.
Funding for both is highly dependent on grants from Whitehall and these will have been slashed by 55 per cent from 2010 to 2018. But even harder hit is capital works. Starting with the massive cuts in 2010 today the government only funds a mere 7 per cent of our entire infrastructure (“capital”) need.
This means that without an alternative plan there is no money for school repairs, extra school places, for public realm improvements or council homes.
Camden Council is a large landowner from stock purchased in the late 1970s when its coffers were full of local business rates. These are now distributed by Whitehall across the country so there’s no magic money tree to shake here as some once did to greater or lesser effect.
But in a time of high property prices we can do more with old buildings and underdeveloped land to benefit the community.
So in 2010 we developed the Community Investment Programme to fund school repairs and places as well as new council homes. The money raised is dedicated to this objective and goes nowhere else. All properties considered by this programme have been published on the Camden website since 2012 www.camden.gov.uk/CIP and all decisions, sometimes difficult ones, have been made transparently and in the open.
Because the council will have 1,500 fewer staff by 2018 and public services must be run cheaper and more efficiently, Labour continued with the pragmatic Conservative-Liberal Democrat plan to reduce the number of council offices from 13 to four. So over the last few years we’ve seen the biggest boom in council-led construction since the 1960s.
Funded by a small number of targeted disposals, a new Netley primary school has been built and a new school planned at Edith Neville in Somers Town. Parents in West Hampstead will have 420 new school places school on the old Liddell Road industrial site on top of £25million repairs to schools in the north west of the borough.
St Dominic’s in Gospel Oak has had major works and huge investment has gone into all our secondary schools. In total 54 out of our 57 schools benefit from works ranging from new heating systems to energy efficiency and better classrooms to entire rebuilds.
There’s also a programme to bring those of Camden’s 22,000 council homes which need work up to standard. Estate regeneration projects have been approved for Holly Lodge and Chester Balmore in Highgate, Abbey in Kilburn, the Bourne and Tybalds estates in Holborn, Bacton Low Rise and several small sites in Gospel Oak and the Agar Grove and Maiden Lane estates; 3,050 new homes including nearly 1,400 new or replacement council homes – at council rents – are being designed and built.
A new public building has been built at no extra cost to the taxpayer in King’s Cross, funded in the main by the sale of our bigger offices in the south of the borough, with a popular new public library and leisure centre like the one in Swiss Cottage. Moving staff into one HQ and new IT saves the taxpayer at least £4million a year in running costs and enables further reform and savings in the future – meaning fewer service cuts in the community and a better-run Town Hall.
One-in-20 council housing starts in the country are right here in Camden and we are the only authority in London to have built more council homes than we have lost through right-to-buy; we hope 500 homes will be built where vacant old council offices now stand, with 50 per cent affordable housing across these sites.
None of this would happen without rethinking what we do with some of our land and investing in the future.
The New Economics Foundation estimates this programme will create an estimated 4,500 construction jobs many of which will be local people trained via our projects in King’s Cross and on Gospel Oak estate.
Investment doesn’t come without difficult conversations about change that some don’t welcome and are against the interests of others.
One of these is our site at 156 West End Lane where we want to sell old council offices, but secure 50 per cent affordable homes (social rent and shared ownership for first time buyers), replacement employment space and generate a capital receipt for reinvestment.
We can’t wish away settled government policy, mothball buildings or ignore opportunities to do more and meet the clear needs of the community. Nor can we give special favours to existing tenants like Travis Perkins plc just because they demand them for land they don’t own and an area they chose not to invest in.
No one is blind to the potential loss of jobs on any development and there will replacement employment space – most agree mixed development is good for the community.
Some lower density sites will inevitably have to be redeveloped and some may be lost or replaced with more modern workspace more in demand by different kinds of jobs, like the tech sector.
The government’s new productivity plan not unreasonably says that land near transport interchanges should take more development. Realistically this is where many more homes could be, subject to decisions debated at planning committee where all views can be argued including those who don’t want any change including change or only change on their commercial terms.
While house prices are going up and up in the borough and the government starves councils of investment, the only institution locally which is providing a meaningful alternative is the council and we will keep true to our aim of investing in the schools, homes and community facilities local people want and need.
• Councillor Theo Blackwell is Camden cabinet member for finance.