Why we need to change the voting system

ballot boxSo here we are, election day, all the hype and bluster is over, now it’s time for us, the great British public to have our say and make our voice heard. It’s the one day when politicians feel most helpless, there’s little they can do now to change things, it’s down to us! I’ll be voting, as I always have, but for the second time now my vote will count for very little.

I currently live in a constituency that is pretty solidly Tory, where tactical voting is pointless and protest votes mean little. I’ve never voted Tory and never will, and even if I did I would never vote for the current incumbent (Liam Fox), therefore my vote will have little impact. I am one of many voters who feel somewhat disenfranchised by our voting system.

It’s so different for me now, I used to live in Bristol South so was lucky enough to live in an area where my vote mattered, where who I voted for actually got elected. Back then I lived in an area where there were active political campaigns, where you knew there was an election happening. You’d be forgiven in North Somerset for wondering about that. Apart from the blue signs in farmers fields and the increase in junk mail (sorry, election material) through our letterbox, you’d hardly know anything was happening. And that’s despite the fact that we also have a local council election. Living in a Tory majority constituency and ward appears to breed complacency. The Tories know they are going to win so don’t bother, whilst the opposition know they won’t get anywhere so activity is reserved for the occasional leafleting campaign or being paired with another more marginal constituency, where you’re encouraged to go and help out instead.

I’ve watched with envy the attention being given to seats like Bristol West, which seems to have had more high profile politicians and celebrities visiting in the last few weeks than you could ever imagine. Where I live, there’s been nothing! When the labour candidates for both the local and general election did some leafleting in our village they got positive comments from residents, not because they were necessarily going to vote Labour, but just because they were the only candidates people had seen doing anything!

Last time we had an election, for the local council, I had two votes to use and three candidates to vote for – two Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat. That was it, that was my choice – no choice at all, no Labour candidate and no Green. That was the first time I have ever spoilt my ballot paper! This time, in both the local and general election, there is more choice, but still I’ll end up with a Tory MP and two Tory councillors. So does my vote matter? It certainly doesn’t feel like it.

imagesIn the European election it did matter and did count, because we had a different voting system for that election. I voted Green and my vote helped to get a Green MEP elected for the South West. This time, voting Green in the general and Green/Labour in the local election will make no difference at all, I’ll still end up being represented by Tories. This story is the same for many voters who live in so called ‘safe seats’ where majorities are large and unlikely to be over turned. Until we change the voting system to some form of proportional representation the problem of ‘wasted’ votes and disenfranchised voters will remain. Perhaps in the next Parliament we can have a proper debate about the issue and a real discussion about how we encourage more people to vote. PR is part of the answer but so is greater engagement and responsiveness.

Housing Policy – consensus and agreement?

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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.

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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.

Housing – a political priority?

DSCN0141Why is housing important? Firstly and quite obviously, it’s a human right – everyone should have the right to a decent home that is affordable. This obvious statement has been discussed before by many better than me – see “Making the case for housing” by Prof Alex Marsh and work by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on housing and poverty.

Secondly, it’s important to our economy, an undeniable fact. Just consider the size of the construction sector and of the housing sector and you begin to understand the impact and importance it has on the economy. Construction contributes 6% of UK GVA and there are 280,000 companies that make up the construction industry, providing nearly 3 million jobs (2013 figures). Obviously not all these are in housing but when construction and house building slumps; so does the economy. When house building stalls during a recession; we stay in recession.

We are currently building less than half the number of homes we were 10 years ago and many fewer than we need. The demand for homes is increasing but we are building fewer. That means more people on housing waiting lists, higher rents, more people on housing benefit, more homelessness, more people priced out of the market and more people living in overcrowded and unfit housing. Government and local councils seem either clueless or powerless to do anything to resolve these problems, other than come up with short term schemes that provide partial solutions. If housing is so important to the economy in jobs, GVA and GDP terms then why aren’t we doing more?

Housing is also important to business, for obvious selfish reasons it must be – how can we attract inward investment, new companies and new opportunities to trade if we can’t house the workforce? How can we attract the right people with the right skills if we can’t house the workforce? The cost of housing is identified by businesses in the Bristol city region as a major barrier to growth; businesses consistently say the cost of housing is stopping them from expanding and growing their business, whilst others complain about not being able to attract people with the right skills. So not having enough of the right houses, in the right place at the right price is a major barrier to business growth. The West of England has one of the highest house price to salary differentials outside of London and the South East. Bristol is ranked the 9th least affordable city to live in Britain according to a recent Centre for Cities report “Delivering Change: building homes where we need them“. Housing is important to business because it helps to attract the right people with the right skills and helps to remove barriers to growth and inward investment, but with unaffordable prices our ability to compete is reduced.

For less selfish business reasons housing is an issue for health and wellbeing because if we are not providing sufficient housing close to jobs, then we are forcing people to live further away from their work. That means more time spent travelling and less time spent with family/friends – getting the work-life balance right is harder if you spend 2-3 hours a day travelling to and from work. It also adds to traffic congestion and creates additional environmental problems. I saw a statistic the other day, can’t remember where, that said a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. Stop and think about that for a minute and the impact that must have on people’s lives. 

Now’s the time, with a general election in 2015 and a Bristol mayoral & council election in 2016, to make sure housing is firmly on people’s agendas; to raise the critical issues and provide the solutions that can be implemented locally. It is easy to sit back and be critical of the inability of local and national political leaders to take strategic long term decisions. We criticise them for having to be sensitive to electoral cycles and for not tackling the difficult issues. Housing is one of those issues that needs a short, medium and long term plan, where the difficult issues need to be faced head on.

Everyone has the right to a decent home. By restricting housing growth and refusing development we are denying people that right. In a prosperous city such as Bristol it is ridiculous that we have around 14,000 people on the housing waiting list, too many people in overcrowded and poor accommodation; and others with nowhere to live at all. So the question remains – what more can we do to deliver the housing that Bristol desperately needs at a price people can afford?

We need local politicians who are brave enough to stand up for the rights of individuals, to provide the homes we need, cut through the politics of housing growth and do what is right for Bristol, the economy and the people who live and work here. And now’s the time to do it!