Like her attack on me at prime minister's Questions, Diane Abbott's article on the Huffington Post is factually inaccurate and politically motivated.
I understand that we are in a febrile stage of the political timetable and that a "Tory toff" is a tempting target in the simplistic world of sound bite politics. But the truth of the housing issue in Hackney that spurred her attack is very different from how she and others have portrayed it.
For obvious reasons this situation has been personalised to me. It has been suggested that I have been personally going around "evicting" needy tenants from "social" housing in Hackney for my own gain. I haven't.
First, it is important to recognise the facts. My family have been landlords in Hackney for around 150 years. My great-great-great uncle developed what is now called de Beauvoir Town, which is a mixed community with St Peter's Church (which we still support) at its heart. Our property holding here is now run by my brother who still lives in de Beauvoir Town and continues to be totally immersed in the local community.
Being a landlord in the area and being part of the community has never before been a conflict of interests. The estate has taken a long-term approach to the management of the commercial and residential portfolio, which has almost always worked in the best interests of the residents. In some instances decisions have been in the interests of the residents at a cost to the estate; these decisions have been made in the recognition that the estate has on-gong social responsibilities to fulfil.
The result of the estate's on-going management approach is that around a third of the residential properties it owns are old-style residential tenancies with discounted rents. The remaining residential properties that it owns are let on new style tenancies known as Assured Shorthold Tenancies (AST). Of this AST portfolio the estate maintains 10% of the properties on affordable rents of, on average, 44% discount to market value. In addition to this the Estate has created 16 workspaces of less than 150 sq ft on affordable and flexible terms. The Estate has retained commercial uses for some properties when far greater income would have been realised by converting them in to high value residential lets; but, we are committed to keeping life in the streets and community.
New Era Estate
The previous owners of the New Era Estate had under invested, the property was (and still is) in significant need of modernisation and it was therefore put up for sale over two years ago. Unquestionably, the best solution for the tenants would have been for the estate to have been bought by a social landlord. Contrary to what was claimed by one MP last week, this estate is not registered as affordable (what many refer to as "social") housing; however, it is true that had the estate been bought by a social landlord there would have been less pressure to change the status quo. Unfortunately, the vendors did not accept a bid from a registered social landlord and instead, it was bought as an investment by an overseas company with different motivations. The nature of the acquisition could easily have meant that residents were served with notices to leave immediately, builders could have been moved in and the process of redeveloping could have started with no delay.
In large part it was the threat of this happening that led my brother to get involved; he believed that there was a better way that was fairer and better served the interests of the residents. Firstly, he insisted that he would only be involved if it was agreed that a further delay (in addition to the two years discussions which have already taken place) of a year with discounted rents could be promised to the tenants. Secondly, his plan was to try to negotiate with Hackney Council for some affordable housing to be part of a regeneration project.
My brother works in a sensitive way and had already approached the tenants, local Councillors and the local MP, Meg Hillier, with his plans. Since the Mirror's front-page article, the chances of achieving these concessions have been greatly reduced as the Benyon Estate considers exiting the New Era project.
So what happens now?
My brother is intent on continuing a long-term relationship with Hackney Council, local people and community organisations. The estate wants to be part of the regeneration of Hackney for all, for many years to come. His feeling and the feeling of his colleagues is that the Benyon Estate's interest in the redevelopment of the New Era Estate is not worth the undoing of all of the good work and community relationships that have been developed throughout the generations.
Is this a victory for the Daily Mirror and for those people that fanned the flames?
Not if the interests of the tenants are their priority. Without my brother and the family business's involvement I expect there could be very quickly an end to the occupation of these flats by the current tenants. Only around 10% of the tenants posed for a picture for the Daily Mirror which shows that perhaps others might believe that my brother and his team are doing their best to make the tenant's bad situation less bad.
New Era is no anomaly.
Despite the fact that the reports by the Mirror are largely erroneous, I do understand that there is a significant social impact to London's housing boom. There will never be enough money in local or national government for RSLs to compete with the free market forces. The binary choice of market rents or "social" rents has seen a change in the demography of Hackney, as it did Islington, Fulham, Wandsworth and many other parts of London in recent decades. Therefore, we need to explore the options for how to manage London's boom whilst minimising the harmful effects on local communities. At the very least there should be a conversation that could include the creation of a new planning designation where planning permission would be for a rent only use. For certain designated zones a Borough could require rents to be limited to a percentage of market levels. This could start to address the affordability concerns of key workers in areas like Hackney.
My family has enjoyed many years of good working with Hackney Council as we have found our objectives align. Beneath the headlines and the froth the truth is that landlords who are committed to an area and take the long-term view are what London needs. My brother and my family intend to be a force for good in Hackney for another 150 years.
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