What next for Bristol Housing?

IMG_1624You might wonder what there is left to say about housing in Bristol with all the debate that’s occurred over the last few months? We seem to have had all the main mayoral candidates talking about it, making promises and pledges in their manifestos and statements. We’ve also had it mentioned in media interviews and articles, as well as at hustings meetings across the board. But what about the housing hustings meeting itself, did anything different come up and were there any real solutions to our housing problems?

Overall there seemed to be a lot of common ground, with the five main candidates all agreeing that we need to build more homes and George Ferguson, the current Mayor, saying plans were in place to do just that. The Conservative candidate, Charles Lucas, constantly referred to the need to build more homes, whatever type or sector, just build, seemed to be his main answer to the housing crisis, alongside making it easier for developers to build by relaxing planning regulations – everyone agreed with the first part of this statement! There was also agreement over the need for some form of housing company to enable the council to build more homes, but quite what this looks like and how it will operate is less than clear at the moment.

IMG_1625George Ferguson expressed the view that we need to tear up the rulebook and be more creative. That’s why he’s set up the Bristol Homes Board, bringing partners from all sectors together to tackle Bristol’s housing problem. He also talked a lot about the Devolution Deal and how this would help to address housing issues. I have to say that I’ve read the deal and I still can’t quite see how it will make that much difference, assuming it’s finally approved by all our local councils, but apparently there’s something in there that will help deliver housing.

The Liberal Democrat candidate, Kay Barnard, seemed to have a bit of an issue with council staff and their lack of expertise/experience in certain areas. In answer to several questions she suggested the need for training, as staff at the council simply don’t have the skills to deliver more homes. Other issues she seemed keen on were the idea of creating an arms length company to deliver homes as has been used in Liverpool, Manchester and Sutton (I’ve yet to check what these look like). She also expressed concern that many housing schemes that have been delivered in Bristol have had little affordable housing included as part of the deal, in her words “the planners need to be tougher”.

From Tony Dyer, the Green Party candidate, we had a thoughtful response to many of the issues, with social and affordable housing taking centre stage and the need to build social houses for rent expressed clearly as a priority. Using council owned land to deliver better quality affordable housing was also a key concern, holding onto land and maintaining control a clear way forward (also expressed by Marvin Rees). Tony also mentioned the impact of government policy and how this has made it even harder for council’s to build social housing, at the same time as encouraging loss of council housing through the right to buy. This is why he is in favour of developing a Bristol Housing Company, to protect new and existing stock from being sold off, as well as to help develop new council homes.

Charles Lucas added to his comment about building more homes by flying in the face of national Tory policy and agreeing that this should be across all sectors, including building social housing for rent and increasing the council housing stock in the city. He also made clear that he thought the planning department was under-resourced, and that in order to attract developers into Bristol we need to have a more efficient planning response that makes it easier for developers.

Marvin Rees , the Labour Party candidate, set out his priorities as building more homes, keeping hold of council land and using the increase in value from development to build more homes. Homes and communities are at the top of Marvin’s agenda and he believes this should be an absolute priority now. Marvin also raised the point about choices, with limited budgets choices have to be made about where resources are spent, there’s money  and land that could have been used to deliver more homes but other priorities were clearly more important. Marvin talked about meetings he’d had with organisations who want to invest and build in Bristol but have found it too difficult, so they have gone elsewhere, illustrating the need for a culture change at the council. This claim was refuted by George, who suggested that it used to be an issue, but is less so now. 

All candidates agreed that the council needed to make the best use of council and other publicly owned land to deliver affordable housing in the city. How this is done and how you can break down the very considerable barriers that seem to exist was less clear from the debate. The intention is there, but we also heard from people in the audience involved in community led housing initiatives who have witnessed those barriers first hand, who claim dealing with the council is impossible, slow and ponderous to the extreme. There are communities in Bristol that have identified space for housing through their neighbourhood planning processes, spaces communities are willing to see developed, but which have stalled because of issues over land ownership, planning, and council commitment. What they see instead is the council selling off public land in their areas for private developers to build on with limited input from the community. What they would prefer is community led development, on sites identified by the community, where they have a real say over the type of housing, what it looks like and what facilities are needed alongside it. All these communities want is a commitment from the council to support a different way of doing things. Surely there must be scope for Bristol to do so much more in working with communities to make this happen?

The debate actually started with a question about homelessness which brings us back to why we need to build more homes, particularly affordable and social housing. Tony made the point that it is a disgrace that people sleep on the streets in a city like Bristol and he issued an apology on behalf of all politicians that not enough was being done to prevent homelessness. All candidates agreed it was unacceptable to have rough sleepers, whilst Marvin added to this and made the point that the homeless are not invisible, they do exist and we need to acknowledge that and rethink the way we think about housing. There are places doing more innovative work on homelessness, Bristol could do well to look at other examples of how to tackle the problem.

There was also a discussion about how to make the private rented sector (PRS) work better for people. Most of the candidates agreed with the Ethical Lettings Charter promoted by Acorn as part of their campaign promoting a new more ethical approach to renting a home in Bristol. Marvin talked about the need for a different set of tools to manage this form of housing, tools which are not currently available but are needed in this changing housing market where private rental is becoming increasingly more common. The Acorn campaign was formed because people believed the politicians and decision makers were not doing their job properly, they were not seen to be protecting tenants or using the powers they already have very effectively. Most agreed this should change.

What the housing hustings did illustrate well was that housing is a big issue, it’s an issue lots of people care about and it’s a political issue. On a Friday evening, on a bank holiday weekend, lots of people turned up to listen, heckle and support the discussion on “what next for Bristol housing”. The issues are obvious, the solutions are available, but somehow we’re not quite doing enough to make enough of a difference. The question is who will make that change and make things happen differently? Hopefully, we’ll know more after the election!

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.