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.

Let’s Build the Houses – Quick!

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The title for this post is unashamedly borrowed from a 1945 Labour campaign poster, when housing really was ‘the’ election issue. The sentiment is perhaps even more pertinent now, but sadly the response from the main political parties falls well short of what is needed. What hope is there if those likely to form the next government really do not grasp the issues and fail to develop policies that will work. Politics truly seems to have taken over from any sense of ‘what works’!

Yesterday, the Labour Party launched its Manifesto, but sadly there was little new or different about their housing policies. The pledge is there to build 200,000 new homes a year, to build new garden cities, the reinvestment of help to buy ISAs and backing for small builders, but there is nothing new – this has all been mentioned before and most was the subject of the Lyons Review report. So no big surprises, no new policy to get us excited about the possibilities for action and making a difference! If you want to know more, I recommend blogs by Jules Birch and the RTPI, who cover the issues in more detail. I was more encouraged by the work of the Fabian Society and John Healey MP, which considers the ‘overwhelming case for new public housing‘ and puts forward arguments for why we need to build more social housing. Let’s hope the Labour Party is listening to some of this and can beef up their housing policies if elected.

Today sees the launch of the Conservative Party Manifesto, which in housing terms pitches back to the 1980s and the Thatcherite Right to Buy policy, this time promising to extend the policy to Housing Association tenants. So what we have proposed is a policy that sells off affordable housing to individuals, who already live in secure accommodation, undoubtedly without the ability to replace these homes 1 for 1. Quite how this helps us to address the housing crisis and the lack of affordable homes is beyond me, but clearly it could be an attractive policy to those who will directly benefit. For those in private rented accommodation, or living with friends/relatives, or homeless, or living in overcrowded housing because of the lack of available, affordable housing, it’s a policy that further limits choices and that reduces the hope for many of ever finding a decent home.

Those in favour of RtB policy see it as increasing equality and providing more people with the opportunity to buy their own home. This is undoubtedly true, and many have benefited from this over the last 30 or so years. But unless we build new social homes to match those sold, we end up with less and less social housing stock for those that need it. We have an ever increasing affordability crisis in the housing sector. We have more people in poor and inappropriate accommodation. But we have fewer social/public homes to offer those in need. How is that promoting equality of opportunity?

The problems of our housing crisis are there for all to see, the solutions are pretty obvious and mostly agreed upon within the housing profession. But politics takes over and we are left with a reinforcement of the problem rather than a solution to the problem of the lack of affordable homes. Building more affordable homes where they are most needed and maintaining them as social/public housing stock is essentially the simple solution. Instead we seek to sell them off, push people into the private rented sector and support the lack of affordability through benefits payments (which we’ll also reduce at the same time).

So far, whilst it is indeed good to see housing policy on the political agenda, and playing some part in this election debate, I am less than impressed with the ‘solutions’ offered by the two main parties. Let’s build the houses – quick – seems like a mantra we should all be repeating, often and loudly!

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.