The Homes for Britain Campaign came to Bristol this week for a housing hustings organised by The National Housing Federation, with support from United Communities. The event was a bit of a rallying call to local politicians to take housing seriously as an election issue and to see just what they had to say about housing in Bristol. There were some useful background presentations from Oona Goldsworthy, Louise Swain and Matt Griffiths, which were followed by a Q&A debate with the candidates very effectively and efficiently chaired by Simon Nunn.
In terms of candidates and representation then things looked a bit thin on the ground, with the Tory MP (Charlotte Leslie) cancelling at the last minute and UKIP not attending. We were left with the Labour candidate for Bristol North West – Darren Jones, and the Green candidate for Bristol West – Darren Hall. In addition, the Lib Dems deemed it appropriate to send a Bristol city councillor (Anthony Negus) rather than one of their general election candidates! However, despite this, the debate was both interesting and entertaining, with a well informed audience including housing professionals, tenants and councillors.
The debate covered a fair amount of ground, with questions pre-submitted by attendees as well as those from the audience on the day. The panel was pretty well behaved and well informed on housing issues, impressively so! There was also an overwhelming consensus on many of the issues discussed – I wonder if that would have been very different had the Tories been at the debate?
There are three main areas that I came away from the debate thinking about: the particular circumstances and approach here in the West of England in relation to housing; the connectivity of policies needed to address the issue of housing affordability and the insanity of the Tory policy on right to buy for housing association tenants.
Firstly, the problem we have in the West of England is a group of local politicians who are scared of growth. They talk about the need to create jobs but don’t want to provide the houses that are needed to support growth. Indeed, it was suggested by the Business West representative that our politicians are actively reducing their jobs growth ambitions because they don’t want to build the houses to go with the jobs – how insane is that? It’s a problem that has plagued politics in the West of England for some time. Bristol with its tight boundaries and growth ambitions is constrained by surrounding authorities like North Somerset who resist proposals for new housing wherever possible. The over-reliance on South Gloucestershire to take all the growth is unsustainable and in danger of further over-heating the north fringe of Bristol. This kind of political nonsense is stopping the proper planning and delivery of new homes across the area. It’s in danger of reducing our ability to grow and provide the jobs and opportunities needed across our communities – even the Local Enterprise Partnership is beginning to express concern over the low housebuilding numbers for the area! With a national consensus on the need to build more homes we also need a local consensus amongst our local politicians to face up to reality and start planning properly for jobs and growth.
Secondly, whether one agrees that 80% of market rent is affordable of not, that is only part of the story. Clearly affordability is a very personal issue and depends on many factors. The response therefore requires a range of solutions. Yes we need to address the issue of affordable rents in the social housing sector, but we also need to do something about the problems experienced in the private rented sector (PRS). All the panellists seemed to be in agreement over the need for rent caps in the PRS, which is a good start but given 50% of residents in Bristol live in PRS there needs to be more of a policy focus on improving and controlling the sector to provide security and quality. Building more homes is also a key part of the equation, although this has little if any impact on house prices it does at least increase the supply of new homes in areas where need is high. What I didn’t get from the responses and discussion was any suggestion that new social housing was a priority. Yes there were comments about improving planning obligations so new private schemes had to include the requisite affordable housing. But where’s the ‘socialist’ policy on supporting councils to build new social housing? Everything just seems so focused on owner occupation and supporting people to buy their homes, whilst we conveniently seem to forget there are other options? But above all, the point came across very clearly that housing policy alone will not address issues of affordability. We need to focus on raising income through increasing the minimum wage, introducing a living wage and banning zero hour contracts to provide people with a decent standard of living. Add to this the point about quality in our housing, providing reduced energy bills, and you get a general feel for how a plan and strategy for housing would need to include a whole range of issues from across different policy areas (and that’s without even going into the whole benefits arena).
The last point that came across loud and clear, that really only reinforced my own view, was the insanity of the Conservative Party proposals to introduce right to buy for housing association tenants. It was indeed a real shame that no one from the local Tories was brave enough to come and face an audience of professionals from the housing association sector, because it meant no one was there to try and explain the logic behind their policy! It seems obvious that all three parties represented at the meeting would be opposed to this policy, and indeed they were, vehemently so, describing it as ridiculous and rubbish – I couldn’t agree more. The debate varied a little over right to buy generally, with some agreeing with the principle but not the way it has worked, leaving us with such a depleted social housing stock. Indeed the recent Tory proposals suggest that new stock will be paid for by local councils selling off their better quality stock – difficult when after 25 years of RtB there is very little quality stock left to sell, so once more we could lose even more affordable homes without the ability to replace them.
Overall I enjoyed the debate and was impressed with the knowledge our politicians had on housing issues, but I still came away thinking that there was something missing, that the ‘plan’ is not yet complete.