The political weather has recently changed for everyone, including local authorities and the business community. People have sent a very clear message that they are receptive to a fresh vision of opportunity and equality. Do not be fooled that this is just a flash in the pan and that things will “settle down” and somehow “return to normal”.
The great British public has confounded the experts in the last two major national votes. This is a trend, not a blip.
So let me share with you what I know from speaking to people on the doorstep and from discussions with my colleagues across the country and the capital.
The public is rejecting what they see as the increasing social divide in this country between isolated and disparate wealth seemingly unconnected with the world at large.
Together, we have the opportunity to bring about a fundamental change that will benefit Westminster and the community for generations to come by building more homes that people from all backgrounds can afford, whilst at the same time accommodating the growth that benefits both businesses and local people.
But I want to be clear. There’s no time for on-going pleasant and cosy chats that might improve things for the better at some undefined point in the future.
Things need to change and need to do so right now.
Here’s how we can do it.
Together, we need to define in detail what everyone needs to do to make this happen.
We then need to take the right decisions, ensuring business plans are in place and we have the right policy framework.
Then, we need to deliver.
That’s how we will be judged, not through glossy plans or brochures that don’t reflect people’s lives, but by giving people hope to realise their aspirations and those of their children.
Westminster City Council’s programme has the title of City for All.
I believe that chimes with the mood of the city and the country.
To give you my personal example; I am from Wales, but I proudly call Westminster my home; my children were born here as were generations of my husband’s family. I am fortunate enough to be able to bring up my family in Westminster;
I want many others to have that chance too.
I do not want to preside over a borough where the housing market is polarised between multi-million properties for oligarchs and council-run estates, with not much in-between.
I want my children to grow up knowing a range of people from all different walks of life and backgrounds, where everyone takes huge pride together in their neighbourhood.
That is what City for All means; it is not a vacuous slogan.
It is about people and their families having the chance to make a life here and not having to leave as their families grow.
My view is that too many times we have not always pushed back enough in requiring affordable homes onsite, have buckled on viability or surrendered to the idea that brutal market economics simply denies housing opportunities for most people and that is just a harsh fact of life.
That is not right and it is going to change.
My appeal to developers is to help me make that change. I have two levers at my disposal to deliver on this – our planning policies and how we apply them, as well as our own housing renewal programme.
My relevant cabinet colleagues and I have already started this work, but it is clear that we need to press down on the accelerator. The first step in that journey will come in the next few days. By the end of this week, we will publish an interim statement on planning policies to support housing delivery.
This will explain how existing policy will be applied ahead of our new City Plan being redrawn by the end of next year. This statement will set out a new approach built on the central presumption that developments should meet our affordable housing policies and how this should be done.
It will also make clear our approach to viability on payments in lieu. Our starting point will be that developments should make provision for levels of affordable housing, either on-site or close by, that meet our expectations. The fact that someone pays too much for a site does not mean that we will allow our residents be short-changed.
Having spent many weeks talking to people both here and in other parts of London, without exception among their top concern is the cost of housing. And, of course, the recent tragic acts of terrorism.
People want to be safe, have a job, a place to live and raise a family.
Is this really so hard to deliver in the city that millions across the world aspire to live in and many come here to make it their home?
I cannot, and do not, accept that things can’t change.
My very first meeting on becoming Leader in January was with the Westminster Property Association.
This was because this sector is absolutely vital to help me deliver my goals and meet the aspirations of those people I represent.
I have always believed that real progress cannot be delivered in isolation and so I will work in partnership with those who have the best interests of Westminster at heart.
If you are a developer who wants to invest in and be invested in the future of our city for the long haul you are very welcome.
However, if you are just a speculator who wants to make a fast buck by building properties that only oligarchs and absent overseas investors can afford, you are in the wrong borough.
Developers want growth in the city and so do I. And let’s be clear – Westminster is and always has been business friendly and stands ready to help create imaginative, innovative proposals that the market wants. Which is why our interim statement also sets out how the council will be open to new ideas.
As long as they genuinely deliver more affordable housing, we will champion those ideas and proposals to both the Mayor and the Government.
Here, in London’s beating heart, there are opportunities to build and develop that our global competitors will struggle to offer.
Central to my leadership is ensuring that we maintain Westminster as a world class city, whilst also pushing it forward as a city for the next generation. To do that, I need help.
How the council interacts with the property industry through our planning processes and policy will be crucial in enabling Westminster to flourish in the way I want it to.
I have tasked Cllr Daniel Astaire, our Cabinet Member for Planning and Public Realm to review how we do this.
The review will ensure our planning policies are fit for purpose; deliver the right conditions for growth; and spread the benefits of prosperity throughout the city.
The city’s resident population is projected to increase by sixteen per cent over the next two decades.
To keep the economy growing, forecasts show that we also need to deliver an additional two million square metres of business floor space to accommodate seventy seven thousand jobs.
We are taking the lead in shaping this future, whilst respecting Westminster’s heritage and its position as the engine room of the national economy.
The new City Plan will be the tool used to meet the ambitious challenge of significantly increasing our supply of affordable housing over the next five years.
I want more people who work here to live here, and more people who live here to remain here when they have families.
This means a change in tack for the kinds of homes I would like to see in Westminster. We want sixty per cent of new affordable housing to be for the intermediate market.
That means filling the gap for those people who don’t meet the social housing threshold, but are struggling to get a foot in the door of the local property market.
While a quarter of homes in Westminster are social – a statistic of which I am very proud – just one point five per cent falls within the intermediate category. That’s not right and won’t build the mixed community we want and need to keep the engine of this city purring.
So we are also changing the way affordable housing is delivered in the city. Our need is real and immediate.
It isn’t enough for us to just ‘take the cheque’ from developers to get affordable housing built elsewhere.
I want developers to work with us to see how we can deliver actual bricks and mortar as part of new schemes, whether they are built on-site or close by in the borough.
There may be exceptions which will be considered on a case by case basis, but through an open working partnership I am certain that we can go much further than has been delivered to date.
We will also push forward the council’s own housing delivery through a wide-ranging regeneration programme.
We already have some fantastic schemes of which we are very proud:
Our Beachcroft site will provide an 84 bed care home and 31 open market apartments.
Our regeneration of the Tollgate Gardens estate is set to provide 109 open market properties and 86 affordable homes, complete with a new community hall, playground and communal garden space
And our Dudley House mixed-use development will, when complete, provide 197 affordable homes, an 840 pupil school for Marylebone Boys School and the redevelopment of Central Pentecostal Church
But when we do get round the table to talk about building more of anything in Westminster, inevitably that leads to another conversation on how to best manage growth and what it should look like. Our recent Right Kind of Growth consultation has just closed. Some very interesting themes are already emerging.
Roughly half of respondents agree that there is scope to add a few extra storeys to existing buildings in Westminster without significant harm to our heritage.
The same number agrees that moderately higher buildings can be accommodated in certain commercial areas.
The analysis is very much in its early stages and will be absolutely vital in helping us strike the balance needed to deliver the homes and jobs that will maintain Westminster’s position as the centre of London.
The property development market is, and has always been, a key part of our great economic success story. What this sector does really matters and Westminster City Council has always been a business-friendly council, and will remain so. We want businesses to succeed in our borough.
However, my message is that affordable housing now needs to be front and centre of everyone’s thinking. But let me be quite clear: our business is to ensure fairness and opportunity in housing. Being friendly to business does not mean engaging in some cosy cabal.
It’s about providing the right environment to support success.
We will never be a borough whose stock in trade is simply to sell its golden postcodes to the highest bidder.
City for All has equality at its heart.
But do understand that housing opportunities for all make good business sense for the sector.
So let’s all heed the wake-up call from the public and deliver together for the benefit of Westminster and for London.