Bristol needs a new, modern committee system

I’m a fan of local government and of the different systems used to make decisions as long as they work. In my experience it is not the system that fails but rather how it is interpreted and implemented by those in power. In the build up to the Local Government Act 2000 there was plenty of discussion about how the committee system didn’t work, how it was old fashioned and out of date. At the time instead of seeking to improve the way it worked the government decided to replace it, with councils asked to chose from one of the following options:
• Leader and cabinet executive
• Mayor and cabinet executive
• Mayor and council manager executive
• Alternative arrangement

Most councils chose the Leader and cabinet model, which is still the most common form of council structure today, despite a growing number of councils now choosing to go back to a committee system. In Bristol the criticisms were about the council being too bureaucratic, too slow, lacking in vision or action, and there being no clarity over who took decisions. There was a momentum around change both locally and nationally, for a new system of governance that would enable better decision making, clearer definition of roles, less bureaucracy, more involvement, and more scrutiny. Many of the same criticisms were also levelled at this new system when the mayoral system was first proposed.

I was a councillor at the time this new model was implemented and I was part of the group that took the decision to go for a Leader and Cabinet model in Bristol. It didn’t on the surface feel like it would be that different to what was already operating in Bristol, we had our own informal cabinet already made up of committee chairs and other key Labour members. However, what this new approach did was take away the backbenchers ability to engage in policy development and public debate. It left backbenchers and opposition members in a pure scrutiny role, working on new scrutiny commissions often with unclear aims, roles and purpose. It was all new, and it took quite a lot of time to work out quite what this new approach meant and how it could operate effectively.

It also left the majority of councillors feeling disenfranchised and disillusioned. It put decision making power in the hands of a small group and made public involvement more difficult and reduced the role of most councillors to that of looking after their ward, an important role no doubt, but only part of what being a councillor is all about. Whilst the new model may have reduced the time councillors spent in meetings it certainly didn’t do anything to improve their engagement with decisions and priorities. I well remember at the time councillors of all parties bemoaning the lack of involvement, discussion and debate and how the old system had been better.

The old committee system did encourage discussion, about decisions, about policy and strategy and about operational issues. In Bristol most backbenchers on a committee would take the lead on a particular issue and more councillors of all parties were given an opportunity to be involved in different ways. The committees often had very open public debate about difficult issues, with input from all parties making a difference to the final decision. However, there were also many occasions where political voting was decided beforehand and no amount of debate at the committee would make a difference to the decision. This in my view was the main problem with the way the committee system worked in councils where one party was in overall control – they didn’t have to win the argument they just had to turn up and outnumber the others so they could win the vote! In my view what was needed was a modernisation of the committee system, to improve the way it operated rather than the introduction of a new model that introduced a whole set of new issues and problems.

Further change in recent years means the system has continued down the route of focusing power in the hands of one person and moved away from involving the majority of councillors in decision making and policy development in any meaningful way. Since 2012 and the introduction of the mayoral model in Bristol decisions can now be taken by one person without any consultation and without any reference to other elected representatives. Yes, as a a system, it provides clear and more visible leadership, and is a role elected by the whole city rather than a handful of other councillors. But, it lacks accountability within the council, it reduces the role of councillors to ward representative and scrutiny members in a system where scrutiny seems to lack teeth!

The committee system had its strengths and was a system I enjoyed working within. It provided opportunity for debate and discussion, in a public forum. It gave backbenchers an opportunity to get to know an area of the council, to specialise, to get to know the issues and the officers involved. It enabled opposition councillors to engage in discussion and to influence decisions. It wasn’t all bad! It did, however, have it critics. It was slow, cumbersome, involved too many meetings, and could be too ‘political’ with members voting along party lines. I have fond memories of the committee system, and can even now recall some of the cross party discussion and debate we had, the issues we dealt with and the engagement we had with members of the public. I also can remember the long meetings and the frustration with how long it all took to get items onto the agenda, through the various internal processes. I do think the system got a bad press as it can be made to work and is in my view more collaborative than either of the other two systems.

The leader and cabinet system introduced in 2000 was a disaster. I don’t believe councils were properly equipped to change systems. There was no real consideration about how it would really work, how officers should operate, what it meant for scrutiny members and how it really made decision making clearer. It appeared to me a compromise between what the government wanted (a mayoral system) and what councils wanted (to stick with the committee system). One of the reasons I quit the council in 2002 was because of my disillusionment with how cabinet and scrutiny operated. The role of scrutiny was poorly thought through and under-resourced. There was little training to help councillors adapt and little thought about what it would mean for the majority of councillors. We tried a range of things, from working as scrutiny and policy development, introducing select committees, providing scrutiny leads on various issues, but with limited success.

By getting rid of committees we left a lot of councillors wondering what their role was and by bringing in an elected mayor that role was once more reduced to that of local representative with little power or ability to effect change, define priorities or develop policy. What we could have, if we didn’t have a Mayor, is a return to discussion and debate, all councillors properly involved and engaged in developing and delivering on the priorities of the council as well as representing the interests of their voters in a way that may actually support change. However, this could only happen if the political parties were willing to give up some of the control over members on committees and allow them the freedom to vote without constraint.

If change is needed then needs to be relevant to Bristol, to reflect the ambitions of the city and to deliver a system that works for the city and its people. It’s a change of approach as much as it is a change of system, let’s think about how to make the system work as much as we think about what to system to have. What’s needed is a collaborative approach, a willingness to be open and debate issues in public and the ability to listen to and learn from different views. Strong leadership comes in many forms, sometimes it is powerful enough to listen, reflect and amend your views, as it is to stick to your views and plough on regardless. If I had a vote, I would vote to return to a committee system, but I would look to introduce a new, modernised committee system, that delivers leadership, openness, discussion, collaboration and debate. I believe it can if the will is there to make it happen, but as ever it depends on the people involved and how they seek to implement the sytem.

Bristol Mayoral Election – What about housing?

CcYfmnsWEAAKjbFWell, we’re almost there, the election is next week. It’s time to decide who will be the next directly elected Mayor of Bristol. With all 70 seats on the Council also up for election it looks set to be an interesting week. Hopefully this time the turnout will be higher and local people will be more engaged in having a say over who governs their city.

Over the last few months I’ve been looking closely at how housing policy has been discussed and debated publicly during the election process. At the beginning of this process it wasn’t clear quite what the political priorities would be and whether or not housing would feature as a key issue. But as time has progressed housing issues have certainly become a big part of the debate. Perhaps not surprising given the very real pressures people are feeling in relation to housing in Bristol.

The Bristol housing market looks something like this:

housing sectors

The statistics below will give you a feel for some of the housing problems Bristol faces:

  • house prices have increased by 29% over the last 10 years
  • private rents in the city increased by an average of 18% in 2015, the highest in the country (alongside Brighton)
  • 28% of privates homes fall beneath the decent homes standard
  • one of the highest increases in homelessness acceptances in the country
  • one of the highest rough sleepers figures in England
  • 2010-2015 only 1490 affordable homes built against need of at least 800/year
  • in the last few of years over 100 council houses per year lost to right to buy
  • in the 12 months prior to March 2014 just over 1200 new homes were delivered in Bristol but only 97 were affordable
  • between 2016-2036 Bristol needs 18,800 needs affordable homes, that’s 940/year

These figures make disturbing reading and really only provide a snapshot of the problem, but are nevertheless useful as background to the debate. I should point out here that the information for this blogpost is drawn solely from publicly available material produced in manifestos, action plans, websites, Facebook pages, hustings meetings and media interviews with the main candidates.

So with all this in mind, what are the mayoral candidates saying about housing? Well, I’ll break it down into 4 main policy areas and take these in turn: overall housing delivery, affordable/social housing, private rented sector, and homelessness, .

Firstly, on overall housing delivery, several of the candidates are making promises to build 8,000 new homes over the next 4 years, that’s 2,000 houses per year of which up to 2,800 will be affordable. This is broadly the commitment made by George Ferguson, Tony Dyer and Marvin Rees, with variations around the numbers of affordable homes (I’ll come back to that later). It is less clear what the Liberal Democrat and Conservative proposals are other than Charles Lucas identifying a priority to build more homes and Kay Barnard highlighting the need to ensure all brownfield sites are developed for new homes. So increasing the number of homes built is a priority for all of the main candidates, but what is missing from much of the discussion is just how they will achieve that. Detailed proposals on the policy changes needed are at this stage largely missing from the public documents. When challenged at some of the hustings meetings candidates have provided more information. In particular, there appears to be some agreement over the need to set up some form of arms length, council owned company to deliver affordable housing projects. Just what this means and how it would work is less clear, but examples are available from other cities where similar proposals have been made using different models, such as the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust. The point here is about changing the role local councils play in increasing the supply of housing, through partnership and enabling roles rather than as sole deliverers. This was an important recommendation in the Elphicke-House Report produced last year which identified the need for local authorities to take responsibility for making development happen in their area.

The delivery of social and affordable housing also appears to be a priority for all the main candidates, some more explicitly than others. Here the focus is on affordable housing, often with no clear definition of what is meant by affordable, but with some making the distinction between the government’s definition of affordable and what is actually affordable to people in Bristol. There’s a real debate to be had here about what local authorities can actually do to increase the amount of affordable housing delivered in their area. With government policy squarely aimed at encouraging home ownership, the public and social rented sectors have taken a bit of a battering. Add to that the proposed extension of Right to Buy to housing association homes, the relaxation of planning S.106 agreements on affordable housing and the curbs on the ability of councils to borrow money to build new social homes and you begin to see that any commitments here are made with one hand tied behind your back. Just what can local authorities do to make a difference? Some of the suggestions include looking at alternative forms of housing, like self-build and cooperative housing, modular build and pre-fabricated housing, as a means of delivering more affordable housing. There are definitely options for more work in this area. Bristol, once upon a time, led the way in self-build, but has sadly fallen behind many others places now as support from the council has reduced and development has become more competitive. I wrote a piece for the Bristol Cable on alternative housing as an option, you can read it here.

The private rented sector as a provider of housing in Bristol has become ever more important over recent years, now providing 24% of homes in the city. This in itself brings with it a number of concerns and issues, such as security of tenure, affordability and quality of provision. All these are concerns in Bristol, as they are in many other cities and towns, where the need to find cheap, affordable housing drives individuals and families into renting unfit accommodation, living in overcrowded conditions, and living in fear of eviction. There is little control over the Private Rented Sector (PRS) and little the council can do to regulate price and quality, and what control they do have is often not fully implemented. As a result of concerns about PRS provision in certain areas of the city, a trial scheme was implemented in Easton and Lawrence Hill, where discretionary licensing was introduced for landlords. This scheme is being rolled out slowly into other areas of the city, enabling council inspections to ensure minimum standards are being met.

In response to issues highlighted by tenants, Acorn have established an Bristol Ethical Lettings Charter, which Bristol City Council have now supported, but this is still only voluntary. This Charter is a declaration of decency and a statement of intent, to help create a fair, professional and ethical private rental sector, it asks landlords and agents to commit to certain standards of security, cost and quality. George, Tony and Marvin all feature policies on improving the PRS, which include rolling out the Ethical Lettings Charter and introducing a landlord enforcement scheme. These priorities would certainly go some way to addressing the concerns of many tenants in the PRS. Giving voice to those tenants is also important, which is where Marks Out of Tenancy could help with their proposal for a website where you can rate your landlord or letting agent, a sort of TripAdvisor for the PRS.

The final issue for debate is homelessness, an increasing concern in Bristol, with more rough sleepers and declarations of homelessness than other cities outside of London. The response from candidates to the issue has been mixed, some don’t mention it, others identify it as an issue, but have few solutions. The ideas that have been mentioned include bringing empty homes back into use, increasing overall housing provision, providing more emergency shelters and providing more support for those who are homeless. Of course there are no easy solutions, people are homeless and sleeping rough for many different reasons and will need varying levels of support at different times to help them address their problems and issues. For those with complex needs there’s an interesting approach being used in the US and Canada which sees housing as a basic human right and seeks to provide immediate access to permanent housing for homeless people. Starting from that premise removes the need for those who are homeless/sleeping rough to go through support programmes and overcome addiction problems before they access decent housing, it starts with housing first, and has seen some significant success. There are different ways of addressing problems and there are some creative and successful approaches out there if only we would look beyond the norm.

Overall it is clear that housing features as a key priority for many of the mayoral candidates, but to date the level of debate has been disappointing, with few new or different solutions discussed. To some degree this is perhaps to be expected, with local government working within a difficult environment of cuts and central control. It’s also fair to say that most hustings meetings and debates have little time to get into the detail as they try to address a range of big topics with up to 13 candidates! I’m hoping the housing hustings taking place on Friday April 29th will provide a little more of that detailed discussion, where the ideas and solutions can be developed further.

Tackling Homelessness – let’s not reinvent the wheel

homelessIt’s difficult to stand back and watch what is happening with housing policy in England at the moment. The transition of the Housing Bill through the legislative process has been complicated, combative and confusing, with endless amendments and changes made along the way. Indeed we are still waiting to see the final outcome, but whatever happens there will be some fundamental changes to the way we do housing in this country.

Within this debate the plight of the homeless in our cities seems to have been somewhat lost, they are an inevitable consequence of our housing and welfare policy  as well as our inability to build enough homes over many decades. However, there is little by way of concrete policy change or real action to actually make a positive difference in this area. It seems we still need to research the issue and find out why people are homeless and how to help them. To this end, in December 2015 the government launched an inquiry into the causes of homelessness as well as the approaches taken by national and local government to prevent and tackle homelessness. Quite what the inquiry will come up with is unclear at the moment as is whether or not it will make any difference.

Perhaps we should be looking elsewhere to see how homelessness has been tackled successfully? We could learn some important lessons.

There’s an approach called ‘Housing First’ adopted in the US and Canada that starts from the premise that housing is a basic human right. This approach was first used in the early 1980s to provide housing for homeless people with multiple and complex needs. It starts from the basis that once you remove the chaos of homelessness then a person is better able to address and deal with the issues that led them to being homeless in the first place.

“Housing First is a consumer-driven approach that provides immediate access to permanent housing, in addition to flexible, community-based services for people who have experienced homelessness” (Canadian Housing First Toolkit)

It seems to me that this concept and approach is well worth revisiting. Instead of demonising and criminalising homeless people maybe we should be thinking about providing them with secure, permanent accommodation and the support they need to enable recovery and improve wellbeing, so they can re-integrate into society. Rather than making ‘housing readiness’ a condition for the provision on housing, it provides the housing first, alongside the support services, so recovery can take place in a secure environment.

The solution to homelessness has been clear for at least a decade: giving homeless people homes. According to a 2014 paper from the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, it could  actually be cheaper in the long term to provide permanent accommodation for homeless people than continue to support them whilst sleeping rough. The paper suggests that levels of homelessness in Canada come with an annual bill of $7 billion in emergency shelters, social services, health care, and law enforcement and judicial costs. Whilst a comprehensive housing strategy would cost taxpayers far less: $3.75 billion in 2015-16 and $44 billion over a decade.

“Studies have consistently shown that – in practice, and not just in theory – providing people experiencing chronic homelessness with permanent supportive housing saves taxpayers money” (National Alliance to End Homelessness)

Another study in Florida (2014) found that Florida residents pay $31,065 per chronically homeless person every year they live on the streets. However, it would cost taxpayers just $10,051 per homeless person to give them a permanent place to live and services like job training and health care. In Utah (2015), another recent programme was established to end homelessness using the Housing First approach. Here, the cost of providing an apartment and social work for clients in the Housing First program is $11,000 annually, while the average price of hospital visits and jail for street denizens is nearly $17,000 a year. Once more illustrating that taking a more holistic view can save money as well as provide the homes that homeless people need.

The key to these approaches is thinking long term about the issue and across different services, something that doesn’t always happen. Maybe we need to remind ourselves why housing is important? Its a basic human right that sets the tone for our lives – everyone should have the right to a decent home that is affordable, but sadly many don’t.

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 and where linkages need to be made across service areas.

If we believe that everyone has the right to a decent home, then 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 so may people on the housing waiting list; too many people in overcrowded and poor accommodation; and others with nowhere to live at all. So what more can we do to deliver the housing that Bristol desperately needs at a price people can afford and how do we tackle the homelessness issue? Perhaps taking a more creative and innovative approach we could adopt the ‘housing first’ principle that starts from the premise that everyone deserves a decent home. This means a new and different approach that puts people first.