My housing wish list for 2015

DSCN0159The start of a new year is a good time both to reflect and think ahead. It’s a good time to be visionary, to think longer term and to overcome the mistakes of the past. So it seemed to me like a pretty good time to consider where next for housing? What would I do if I had any influence or responsibility for housing in Bristol. What would I do differently? What would I change and how could the system work better? Now, of course, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and come up with ideas, because it isn’t actually my job to implement any of this, or make the changes, or take the difficult decisions. So I’ll start with that as a caveat, I know it’s harder than you think and local politicians, the Mayor and others face tough decisions over budget cuts, prioritisation and are lobbied from all sides. I also know lots is being done locally to make changes for the better. But I also know more could be done!

In terms of local housing provision now is the time to be bold, to take some tough decisions and to prioritise the delivery of new, affordable, sustainable housing in the numbers that are needed to meet demand. It’s no good playing around the edges of this any longer, it absolutely has to be a priority for funding, land, resources, time and energy from all involved. Forget the excuses and start delivering.

My wish list includes both local and national changes, and will undoubtedly miss out lots of things that could also be done, but these would be my priorities.

First and foremost I would take a local decision to scrap the Right to Buy (RtB) on any new build council homes and to reduce the discount available for existing homes. I would challenge the government on their policy, as Brighton Council are, and ask that this be controlled locally. It might only be a temporary decision, that can be revisited in a few years, but for now, we are losing more social homes every year than we are building – how does that make sense? Many of those sold under RtB end up with private landlords, renting them back to people at higher rents, subsidised through housing benefits – again, how can that be right? So come on George, Mark and others, be bold, push for local control.

Secondly, another ask of government, that is, to increase the limit on borrowing capacity so local councils can borrow more against existing housing revenue. Current limits are too low and greatly restrict the ability of councils to build new social housing, or to use the funds to support affordable housing through other providers. Subsidised housing requires a public subsidy, and this needs to be in the form of capital investment not through the benefits system as is currently the case. If greater powers and resources are available to cities, then this is one that we should shout loudest about. Give councils the ability to build/fund new social housing.

Thirdly, the council has a responsibility to use its land to support council priorities, so prioritise housing and find the land and buildings to enable more new homes to be built. This land needs to be available at the right price and in the right places, so new affordable houses can be provided, close to jobs and transport infrastructure, where people want to live. I’d like to see some pilot schemes to show what is possible, to bring new ideas, innovation and creativity to the housing market in Bristol. During 2015, the year Bristol is European Green Capital, why not showcase some custom and kit build houses, using more efficient construction processes and providing sustainable homes at affordable prices? Why not illustrate how conversion of empty office buildings can provide new affordable homes in local neighbourhoods, as well as focus on empty homes and bringing those back into use? Why not use land in public ownership to do something different, to move away from volume build new estates that could be anywhere, and choose local designers and builders with a bit more vision to provide quality homes at affordable prices? Above all, prioritise council land for housing and get on with it!

Fourthly, do something to toughen up our planning officers. All too frequently over the last couple of years we have seen planning agreements renegotiated on key sites so affordable housing provision is either totally removed or reduced to negligible numbers. All developers have to do is threaten to stall development and we roll over and do anything they want just to get things moving. We are also too slack when it comes to design and quality issues – Bristol is a fantastic city but we are slowly ruining it with poor, ill thought out design on many new developments. A plea to our planners to do more, challenge more and say NO! Otherwise we’ll end up with more institutional, brash architecture, where any notion of local design and quality is sadly lacking, and the end result is just horrible.

Finally, let’s have a comprehensive plan for housing. This ‘wish’ applies both locally and nationally, but here the focus is on Bristol. We need a plan that covers all sectors and opportunities, that is proactive, that shows leadership and commitment, above all we need a comprehensive, long term plan for addressing Bristol’s housing crisis. Only then can we see the solutions, the resources and the decisions that are needed to make a difference in the short and medium term. Elements of this plan exist but we need more – more decisions, more resources, and more affordable homes.

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7 thoughts on “My housing wish list for 2015

  1. Spot on and as a company that has the solution to the above tried and tested ,with the added advantage of ending fuel poverty, your comments are about as spot on as they can be we need ACTION now,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Unless we have a huge change and introduce some kind of European style rent controls over the private rental sector then building more social housing is pointless. Rent controls won’t happen anytime in the near future as allot of MP’s from all the main parties are either part time property developers themselves or receive financial support from property developers. The big 3 also know how many potential voters have their assets in property.

    Councils can’t be trusted to build homes as they will simply sell those assets to private developers at the earliest possible convenience (I believe Labour controlled Councils have transferred around 2m property’s into the private sector this way?).

    Then we have the personal ‘effect’ take me as a good example I own my own house and also own another which I rent out (which is my pension, I work for myself so I don’t get any sort of subsidised pension). I saved up for 5yrs for my first deposit and struggled for the first 2-3 years to make my mortgage payments as I made the house habitable (7-8 yrs of hard work). There isn’t a snowballs chance that I would ever vote for a party who would want me to pay more in tax so my assets can be devalued.

    Change of use planning permission from commercial to domestic really, really isn’t any sort of answer, especially in Bristol. Were struggling for good quality affordable commercial spaces in Bristol as its far too easy to get change of use to domestic. All were doing is pushing employment out of Bristol and turning us all into dreaded commuters. I was recently booted out of my commercial space in central Bristol as the landlord simply got change of use to domestic (and get this the change of use was based on there being no parking at the commercial space as the landlord refused to apply for RPZ permits and its unrentable as a commercial space with no parking) and yes I now have to commute from Bristol to my new space out near Cribbs. I had to go to Cribbs as commercial rents in Bristol now have to compete with domestic rents as landlords know how easy change of use planning permission is to get.

    The right to buy could be stopped for any new Council tenants but its not fair to those who currently rent and so few Council house are built I’m not sure it would make a difference.

    Of course then there’s the fundamental problem of Councils being completely commercially inept (especially in Bristol). They only target the small easy to target developers to build social housing in their schemes (who then simply either go somewhere else or reduce the amount of builds below the social housing level) the large house builders and large developers simply do exactly as they please. And you can sort of understand it, why should private companies build subsidised housing to replace Council housing that’s just been sold by the Council.

    Lets do the simple things first.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Danny, thanks for your comments. I think a big part of the problem regarding councils selling council houses is down to the right to buy. I know many councils who would prefer to retain council homes but have no choice but to sell, they then of course have no control over those homes in the future. I take your point about the need for commercial property, but given the government changed the regulations so you can convert from office to homes without permission there is little councils can do to stop this happening. Equally, in some areas, office buildings sit empty for years – it is these that I think could be targeted for conversion? I agree about doing the simple things first – but what are they?

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  3. Council owned land. What is happening to the allotments at Ashton Vale which the Council so generously offered to give to the company building the new stadium. I believe it was valued at £5 million. Plenty of scope there for some houses and not in the Greenbelt, and with good connections to the city. I think Danny makes a good point about jobs. As my MP once wisely pointed out, you can’t use all the spare land for housing, you must also take into account the needs for jobs, and that’s a difficult balancing act!

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    • Hi Paul, good point about land at Ashton Vale, no idea what is happening now. The balance between jobs, housing and other community infrastructure is a point well made, that’s what planning is supposed to be about!

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