Friday, 9 August 2013

Is Croydon Giving Full Help To People on Benefits?

There are a number of ways in which pro-active advice by Councils, CABx and other welfare rights/benefits advice organisations can help to ensure that people on benefits are getting the correct amount of money and in relation to private tenants can be helped to reduce expenditure. I attempted to find out what action was being taken through a Freedom of Information request. 
I asked:

In the partnership work between the Council, the CAB and other organisations involved in giving money, debt and budgeting advice, how many households advised in 2012/13:
a.    were not claiming the correct and maximum benefits they were entitled to;b. were being paid less than the minimum wage;c. lived in private rented property where the landlords had not undertaken the maximum energy efficiency measures to reduce heating bills;d.   were living in private rented property where the landlords were not complying with re-sale of electricity, gas and water requirements of the regulators;
e.   were living in private rented property where the landlords had not installed the maximum water efficiency measures possible to keep water meter bills down?f.    did not have the most energy and water efficient white goods which help reduce expenditure? The Council's reply is as follows:

The council does not hold the specific information in response to any of the questions you raise below. Considering your request it may be that the department of works and pensions and regional energy suppliers could be better placed to answer your points.  
 We record a number of statistics to understand the position and then outcomes of those cases the council’s team are supporting and the cases passed between partners.  Those partners will then hold their own further data based on their own service model.

Perhaps the matters contained in my questions should become part of the advice system in Croydon and statistics made available. If such a change is not made before the May Council elections perhaps Labour can include mention in its manifesto, and meanwhile raise the questions in Council discussions.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Future of Norbury High St

‘I moved from Brixton to Pollards Hill North in Norbury 7 years ago. Over the years I have seen Brixton turn into a trendy smart neighbourhood. Whereas Norbury High Street has totally deteriorated into one the worst high street possible; it’s an absolute eye sore and gives me no pleasure to shop there.’

So wrote J1010 on the This is Croydon Today website last November.

‘Shops upon shops of meat & veg stalls, take away shops, bookmakers, pawnshops, and bric & brac shops. The charity shop constantly has its goods strewn all over the pavement due to people opening bags that have been left outside. It’s become dangerous to walk on the pavements due to the majority of these meat and veg stalls encroaching on the pavement space. ‘

J1010 asked ‘Can anybody tell me why are the council granting permission for so many of these types of market stalls and shops? Norbury High Street needs to become more diverse in it’s shops, as it seems to be catering only for one type of clientele. Why should I have to travel to Clapham, Brixton, or Lordship Lane to find the type of shops many of Norbury resident are crying out for? Less off these type of shops and more trendy bars, coffee shops and boutiques. Croydon council expects a hefty council tax from us so please let’s have some regeneration in the north of the borough.’

Joint Residents Association Action Saturday 3 August

The residential areas on both sides of Norbury High St are divided into four each with a residents association. This means that unless the four organisations work closely together there is fragmentation. Following a joint meeting earlier in the week a small group of their members met with Council officer Fiona Woodcock in the High St for over 3 hours on Saturday 3 August.
One of the residents David Clark explains that Fiona Woodcock ‘didn't 'mince her words' with the offending shopkeepers, telling the grocers where they were exceeding their areas and getting them to move their stock back to within that space. She also told them to return the 'Bread boxes' within 7 days to the bakery (which they were using illegally to support their fruit stalls). The grocers were also told not to pile their groceries up on the pavement when replenishing their stock, but to do it from the back of the shops.

Fiona came with her extending rule and camera and so was able to record and warn the license breaking offenders.’

On the following Monday ‘she was going to get ‘some of the white area lines replaced where they have been removed by some of the shopkeepers.

Fiona also got three of four of the shops to wash down the grime areas around the bins outside their shops. She reported to the council the 'rat run' area in the alleyway next to the Co-op.
'Creams' were told not to sit people outside after 7pm but to use that space behind a roped balustrade to form an orderly queue rather than have 20 odd people hanging about and blocking the pavement.’

On the Monday following at 9.15 am David walked the High St. The white lines had already been painted. Two shops were encroaching over their white lines and moved back when he spokes to the shopkeepers. As David says ‘It will need constant monitoring and enforcing which is Croydon Council’s responsibility.’

Previous Action Autumn 2010

This sort of action is nothing new and reminds us of the need to keep on top of local issues and not let them drift. The mis-named Norbury Village Residents Association’s November 2010 newsletter reported that following a meeting of the associations with the Council and the police the following steps were agreed.

·         Additional ‘Stop & Search’ exercises will take place in Norbury to verify legitimate waste in cars/vans.
·         The Neighbourhood Enforcement Officer agreed to fine and prosecute individual offenders, but they need more witness statements from the public.
·         A portable surveillance camera will be introduced by the Council to cover ‘hotspots’.
·         Portable signage will highlight problem areas.
·         All High Street businesses have been visited by the Illegal Enforcement Officers to check their waste contracts. Follow up checks will take place.
·         Council will provide the RA with “Envirocrime” stickers to place on bags that have been dumped.
·         10 new bins have been authorised to be placed along the High St.
·         The Council will raise the issue of waste not being cleared up after a refuse collection with their contractor. Also the problem of bags being left by the contractor for several days after street cleansing.
·         The RA agreed to try to encourage more street champions.
·         The RA agreed to discuss with lettings agencies what they tell prospective tenants about disposal of waste.

So clearly whatever action was taken in the autumn and early winter of 2010 the pressure for continual action must have lessened. The associations need to re-look at this list and decide which need to be acted upon again.

Learning From Saturday’s Exercise

So what was learnt from Saturday’s exercise? I was able to attend for an hour towards the end of tour of the High St. I put my initial thoughts in a posting response to an Inside Croydon story on rubbish problems elsewhere.
·         Residents association activists need to understand the nature of businesses, how marginal many of them are, and how extra costs can tip them into closing, creating more empty shops.
·         Residents associations must work with businesses.
·         It is the Council’s responsibility to ensure the enforcement of white line areas, rubbish collection, street cleaning and adequacy and proper siting of street litter bins.
·         Resolving many of these problems needs to involve tact and diplomacy.

It turns out that the Co-op owns five empty and run-down looking shops on the frontage.
Looming is the Government threat to enable shop premises owners to convert empty shops to housing without the need for planning approval. If this happens then Norbury High St could lose its identity as a shopping parade.

So what next?

The stretch of London Rd through Norbury needs to be re-identified as Norbury High St to improve its neighbourhood identify.
·         The four residents association should consider setting up a joint working group that will inspect the High St at least once a month, recording problems and taking them up with the Council.
·         The apparently moribund business group should be revived in order to re-build a collective business identify which wants to see the High St improve in its attractiveness to increase customers and improve the economic viability of the businesses, and enables businesses to work together in their dealings with the Council and landlords.
·         The business group should be represented on the working party.
·         The working party should examine high street projects elsewhere to see what could be applicable to Norbury High St e.g. West Norwood Feast.
·         The Co-op should consider setting up a joint working group with the associations and the business group:
o    to take steps to improve the frontage image of its empty shops including making one available for community use including by residents running very small businesses who cannot afford shop rents.
o    to discuss in the longer term linking its High St frontage empty shops in with its building on in order to give it a High St entrance and higher profile, with perhaps including a branch of the Co-operative Bank.
o    to invite all its local members to a meeting to discuss improvements to the Co-op shop.

Read more:

How Is Croydon Spending Its Planning Monies?

You may be wondering what the Council spends the money that developers have to give it when they obtain planning approvals. The answer to a Freedom of Information request I submitted in July gives some information which helps to understand the system and track what these monies are and what they are being spent on.  Section 106 payments are being replaced by the Community Infrastructure Levy.

Section 106

Between July 2012 and February 2013 Croydon Council  approved Section 106 Agreements on 42 planning applications totalling £1,258,925.29. The numbers in brackets represent the number of S106 agreements involved where more than 1.

·         Ward Breakdown

Addiscombe: Little Rd Childrens playground £80,000 (2); East Croydon Link Bridge  £204,606.16 (4); Public art £22,500.

Ashburton: Addiscombe Recreation Ground playground £59,690; public realm project £30,400.98.

Broad Green: Wandle Park £27,000; Kingsley Primary £274,954 (3).

Broad Green/Waddon/Fairfield: £51,528.69.

Fairfield Ward: Park Hill improvements £125,405 (3); Robert Fitzroy Academy £57,000; College Green Paving Project £808,103,986.58 (5) and Old Town Masterplan £50,000.

Kenley: Woodcote special education needs resource base £6,404.

New Addington: Wolsey Infants £4,715.

Purley: Woodcote special education needs resource base £8,394.

Shirley: Monks Orchard Primary School £5,480.

South Norwood/Woodside: Norwood Junction Station access £44,100 (3).

Waddon: transport development £10,912.29; Purley Oaks Primary School £14,044.80.

West Thornton: Mayfield Rd Playground £5,956.79 (2); Bensham Manor School 7,500 (2).

Borough wide: Apprenticeship Accord £6,400.

·         Category

Education: 13. £390,099.89 (13)
Highways works: £81,929.58 (2)
Open Space: £344,388.79 (11)
Public Arts: £22,500
Public Realm Improvements: £153,986.58 (5)
Sustainable Transport: £269,419.45 (8)
Training: £6,400

The details including the addresses of the planning approval schemes can be accessed on the Croydon Observatory site:

Community Infrastructure Levy

The Community Infrastructure Levy is replacing Section 106 for new approvals. The money will be split between the Mayor of London for Crossrail spending and Croydon Council for provision, improvement, replacement, operation or maintenance of: education facilities; health care facilities; projects in the Connected Croydon Delivery Programme; public open space; public sports and leisure; and community facilities (as defined by the Croydon Local Plan: Strategic Policies). Further detail can be seen at:

Use of CIL To Buy Houses

Part of my Freedom of Information request was the following question: is the Council legally able to re-negotiate the agreed allocations with developers in order to increase the amount of money available to it to purchase housing on the open market and bring empty properties back into use, even though this may reduce allocations into more general pots like transport and street improvements?

The reply states: ‘Section 106A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 enables the Council to re-negotiate S.106 agreements. There are no restrictions on the scope of negotiations beyond that set out by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. A full guide to s.106 in Croydon can be found on the Council’s S.106 webpage (’

I also also asked: ‘Given the potential Community Infrastructure Levy monies that might be due to the Council under future agreed developments, will the Council agree to increasing the allocation priority to help fund the housing strategy of purchasing homes and bringing empty properties back into use?’

The reply states: ‘The Community Infrastructure Levy cannot be used to fund affordable housing as it is not considered infrastructure as set out in s.216 of the Planning Act 2008 (as amended). Information on what the Community Infrastructure Levy will be spent on is set out in the Council’s Regulation 123 statement which can be found in the Council’s guide to the Community Infrastructure Levy available online from the Council’s CIL webpage (’

How Much Does Croydon Council Understand The Private Rented Market?

Nearly one  in five homes in Croydon are privately rented. With private sector rents fuelling the scale of housing benefit payments, it is important to understand the nature of the private rented market, who the landlords are, and which ones need to watched closely to ensure they do not overcharge and provide safe and well repaired homes. A more detailed picture of private renting in Croydon than appeared to be available is emerging from Freedom of Information requests I lodged in July.

Wards with High Private Rental Homes

The 2011 Census shows that the Wards with the highest levels of private renting are mainly in the North of the Borough:
Addiscombe 30.8%
Bensham Manor 26.3%
Broad Green 26.9%
Croham 28.1%
Fairfield 39%
Norbury 22.4%
Selhurst 28%
S. Norwood 27.5%
Thornton Health 22.4%
Upper Norwood 20.3%
Waddon 21.3%
W. Thortnon 25.5%
Woodside 23.3%

Neighbourhood Concentrations

Analysis of previous censuses revealed that there could be very high concentrations in smaller parts of wards (called ‘enumeration districts’ in the 2001 Census). I asked whether the 2011 Census provided similar information. The reply states: ‘There are no official Enumeration Districts (EDs) created for the 2011 Census.  EDs were used for the 2001 Census when England and Wales had 116,895 of them.  The majority of these are different from their 1991 equivalents so comparisons from one census to another was difficult.’ The Council specifically says in relation to the question ‘Are there areas of the Borough where there are high concentrations of poor private landlord properties?, that it ‘does not record this information.’

Private tenants receiving housing benefit

I asked for the statistics of the private tenants receiving housing benefit in each rental band and bedroom size group?   The reply states: ‘As at the 1 July 2013, Croydon has 16,641 local housing allowance (LHA) private tenant customers receiving housing benefit in Croydon and they are broken down into the following.

Bedroom Size required
Number of Customers
1 Bedroom
2 Bedrooms
3 Bedrooms
4 Bedrooms
A Shared Room

The Council cannot provide a breakdown by rental band.’

Private Sector Leasing

The Council had a target of 1,000 dwellings for its private sector licensing scheme. It only achieved 250. I asked how many landlords and owners were approached to take part, how many units do they control and what reasons did landlords and owners give for not wanting to take part.

The reply states: ‘Accommodation providers who provide properties for the Private sector licensing scheme are on a tendered framework of providers.  Tenders were invited through the London Tenders portal.  The council currently has 12 active providers who lease properties from private landlords.  The council cannot say how many landlords they currently deal with as the agreement is between the private landlords and themselves.’

Frankly this is  ridiculous answer. The Council should be able to provide the information from the monitoring reports received by the providers. When I ran a housing association’s private sector leasing programme in the 1990s my team had to continually update the local authority with details.

As part of my FoI request I also asked what advantages the 250+ landlords and owners who have agreed to take part see in the scheme? The reply: ‘I believe you may be referring to the Croybond scheme.  Assuming this is the case, the advantages of the Croybond scheme are listed below.
·         Free lettings service
·         Ongoing soft support to landlord and tenant
·         Free tenancy documents and paperwork
·         Free inventory and inspection
·         Rent paid directly to the landlord’s bank account (via housing benefit)
·         Deposit bond (eliminates the need to deal with the Tenancy Deposit Scheme) rent in advance/incentive payment.

The bedroom size required is assessed using the customers household make up an assessment is done on how many bedrooms the customer needs not how many bedrooms the customer has.’

Private Landlords as Council Leaseholders

Earlier in the year the trade union GMB commissioned research into the private landlord leaseholders of Wandsworth Council. This showed a number of companies were multiple owners of leases, and several individuals were also multiple owners while some of them were also involved in the companies. My FoI request sought to see what Croydon Council knew about the situation in its own properties. This is the reply:

‘Of the 2106 leasehold properties which are managed by the council, 838 have mailing addresses where the leaseholder does not live at the property, which can be broken down as follows:
·         One owned by a Housing association
·         35 company addresses which are known to us as the leaseholders
·         802 named individuals which are known to us as the registered leaseholder’

Protecting Private Tenants

The Council’s involvement in protecting private tenants from bad landlords is discussed in my previous blog

Croydon Action On Empty Housing

More homes in Croydon can be made available if owners leaving properties empty are pressured into bringing them back into use, selling them to housing associations or the Council, or joining the Council’s private sector leasing scheme.

There are nearly 3,500 empty homes in the Borough. Shelter’s data for Croydon suggests that there were 3,638 empty dwellings in 2011 and 3,606 in 2012. I therefore submitted a Freedom of Information request to try and find out whether these figures were correct. The Council Tax list shows 3,482 in April this year.

In answer to my question ‘How many dwellings were empty in the Census 2011’ the Council replied that the information requested ‘is already in the public domain and is therefore exempt under Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, ‘Information reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means’. I received the same answer to my question ‘  Can the number of empty dwellings in the Census be analysed by ward and category of ownership, and if so what is the breakdown?’ The officer added that the information is accessible via the Census 2011 information on the office for National Statistics website. However the National Statistic site is not a user friendly one, and I cannot find the Croydon 2011 vacant property details on it. They do not even give the figures for 2008 although there is a category in the datasets for this. In response to another FoI request there is some Census information on the Croydon Observatory website.

Empty Properties on the Council Tax List

I also asked how many properties are shown to be empty on the Council Tax list and can what the breakdown is by ward and category of ownership.

While the Council has provided the breakdown by ward as set out in the table below, it will not do an ownership breakdown. The explanation states: ‘For the empty property service to break this down by ownership category would take longer than 18 hours, this also the case with council tax records, each account would individually need to be checked.  The Freedom of Information (Fees and Appropriate Limit) Regulations 2004 specify an “appropriate limit” for the amount of time the council needs to spend undertaking that search.  If the council estimates that the time to taken to locate, retrieve and extract the information requested will exceed the appropriate limit, then under Section 12 of the Act, it is not obliged to comply with that request. The appropriate limit currently specified by the Regulations for local authorities is £450. This represents the estimated cost of one person spending two and a half working days in locating, retrieving and extracting the information from where it is stored.  We estimate that the cumulative time it would take officers to retrieve the complete records you are seeking would exceed the appropriate limit. Therefore, we are unable to disclose the information you are seeking.’ 
Ward name:
Bensham Manor
Broad Green
Coulsdon East
Coulsdon West
New Addington
Selsdon & Ballards
South Norwood
Thornton Heath
Upper Norwood
West Thornton

Street Count

I also asked whether the Council plans a physical count street by street of what appear to empty properties to help identify  more properties than appear on the Council Tax list. The reply states ‘The Council’s Empty Property Officers conducted a street survey to identify empty properties and to familiarise themselves with the Council Tax information in 2010. The Empty Property Officers regularly visit properties reported by members of the public and investigate properties that they identify themselves as potentially empty. For those reasons a borough wide street by street count is not felt to be necessary at this point. It is also worth remembering that the figures given by Shelter, the Census and above are all referring to properties that are empty on a given day – this is not the same as properties which are classified as “long term” empty which are ones that have sat empty for 6 months or more. Properties regularly change occupants but that does not mean that they need an intervention from the Council during this transaction to ensure they become reoccupied. The Empty Property Officers deal with properties that have been empty for a minimum of 6 months as this period of time usually suggests the owner has an issue that has prevented the quick turnaround in occupation and may benefit from advice or encouragement from the Council. At present there are approximately 600 properties in the 3,500 that are registered as empty by Council Tax which are long term and are being targeted by the Empty Property Officers.’

GLA Support Scheme

The Council has an agreement with the Greater London Authority under which the GLA provides funding to bring empty properties back into use. I asked how much this funding was for. The reply states: ‘The initial level of funding provided to Croydon Council under the agreement with the GLA has a target of 59 properties to be returned to use by March 2015.’

CPO Potential

I also asked how many landlords keeping properties empty for unreasonable periods may justify the Council compulsory purchasing them. The reply states: ‘We do not hold that information, however the Empty Property Officers are currently involved in:

         One Compulsory Purchase of a long-term empty residential property is currently awaiting a decision by the Secretary of State, although to our knowledge the owner of this property is not a residential landlord.
         Another long-term empty property has just been approved for Compulsory Purchase and the process will start shortly.
         A report recommending the compulsory purchase of a third long-term empty property is currently being prepared.
Keeping a property ‘empty for unreasonable period’ is not, in itself, a reason for the Local Authority to consider a Compulsory Purchase Order.  Under Section 17 of the Housing Act 1985 the Compulsory Purchase of a property can only be considered for the ‘provision or improvement of housing’. Guidance contained in Circular 06/2004, issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, states that the compulsory purchase must ‘achieve a quantitative or qualitative gain in housing’ and ‘there appears to be no other prospect of a suitable property being brought into residential use’.  The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 requires that there is a compelling case in the public interest.  These are the only considerations when a property is the subject of a Compulsory Purchase action.  A number of other options are explored before a property is considered for Compulsory Purchase.  In all instances the Local Authority will also seek to acquire the property by agreement first and CPO is considered as an option of last resort.’