There’s a debate that’s happening in Bristol, or at least should be happening, about whether or not the council should keep hold of some or all of its council house stock. I say should be happening because the debate has been neatly set up by the Homes Commission in its recent report published last month – I talked about this report in a recent blog. One of the ten ‘big ideas’ in that report was about making best use of council assets to deliver more affordable housing in the city, an aim supported by just about everyone. However, the difficult bit comes when you mention ‘stock transfer’. The notion of moving council homes out of council ownership has been resisted in Bristol every since the policy came about (mid-late 1980s). Indeed only around 3,000 of the initial 48,000 council stock has been transferred to other registered providers (housing associations) and Bristol remains one of the few big cities to have held onto its council stock, with some 28,000 homes still run and managed by the council (the rest has been lost to Right to Buy).
At the moment the council is able to build only a handful of new council houses each year, by borrowing against its own stock. The plan is for the council to build 1,000 new council houses in the next 14 years (that’s the maximum they can hope to achieve under current rules)! Now whilst that is an admirable aim one has to seriously question firstly whether or not they will even achieve that and secondly whether that is really the best we can do in Bristol with the asset we have in terms of existing stock and land holdings.
The question the Homes Commission were trying to address was – what is the best approach we can take to secure the funding and resource we need to deliver on affordable housing in Bristol now? So what can we do, within existing rules and regulations, to get the city building the new low cost homes that are so desperately needed? And the suggestion from the Homes Commission is that the council look at just what could be achieved through limited stock transfer – how much would this increase borrowing ability, how many new homes could be achieved by increasing the ability of housing associations to borrow against existing stock?
This issue has been neatly kept off the agenda for many years, with political ideology holding strong against any notion of large scale transfer, and to a point our local politicians should be applauded for this, it means Bristol has a large number of homes available for social rent. Sadly however this is no where near enough and we are faced with a local housing crisis made worse by Bristol’s popularity as a destination and success in our local economy – it’s a popular place to live and work. The upshot of this is we haven’t been building anywhere near enough homes, and affordable homes in particular, for decades. The housing assessments tell us we need to be adding 1500 new affordable homes every year, the average has been 400 per year, and last year that dipped to just over 100 – so we also have a shortfall to overcome on top of the 1500 we need anyway, and that is net additions, so needs to take account of any sold off under the Right to Buy as well.
This is clearly a very emotive issue for many politicians and others but we have a crisis and we need to think about innovative and creative ways of solving it and we may even need to think about options not previously considered. At the very least the council needs to be business like about this, if the aim is to build more affordable homes then the council should be prepared to explore and investigate all avenues for achieving that aim. As a business why wouldn’t you look at how much could be achieved through one option compared to another, why wouldn’t you explore every opportunity so at least you knew what was possible? Whilst I understand people have very strong views about this, I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to have a proper business case developed, to help provide you with an answer that gives you the greatest ability to develop more affordable homes in Bristol.
The initial response to the Homes Commission report, from Labour politicians in particular, seems to be one that holds onto ideology (not a bad thing in itself), where the response is a definite no to stock transfer and therefore there is no point in undertaking a business case because it wouldn’t be supported anyway. The Labour Group comments at the Cabinet Meeting and since in a press release make their case very clear – they are committed to keeping Bristol City Council as a social landlord – and no one is actually suggesting otherwise. The Homes Commission were merely looking for a clear understanding of the benefits or otherwise of stock transfer, no one suggested that should be all 28,000 homes in one go!
So maybe the sticking point is around partial or mass transfer of stock, so maybe the business case needs to look at what additional benefit you could get out of transferring an element of stock compared to the benefit from retaining that stock in council ownership – without a full appraisal how do you know what you could achieve with a different policy and how can you make the right decisions without full information?
Just maybe the resistance comes from an understanding that the benefits will be shown to be greater therefore we don’t want to know because how could we then justify not doing something? Surely, given the circumstances, we need to have a rational debate about this with all the facts and figures in front of us so we can make the right decisions?