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!

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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.

Housing Policy – consensus and agreement?

IMG_3131

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.

IMG_3133

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.

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.

#HousingDay – why housing is important

DSCN1033This is a special short blog for #HousingDay, an event that celebrates the positive impact of social housing on thousands of people across the UK, shows off the positives of working in the sector and living in social housing, and why it’s so important. I write about housing some of the time on this blog, mostly from an abstract position – I don’t work in the housing sector, I’m not a housing professional or an expert, but it is at the top of my list of issues to talk about, raise the profile of and debate how we improve provision for everyone. Whenever I travel abroad I seek out interesting housing schemes to visit, wherever I am and I’ve seen a few in now all over the place, in China, Hong Kong, The Caribbean, Amsterdam, France, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Turkey, Spain, Portugal and even in the Maldives! Many of them fascinating, different and challenging in equal measure. Regular readers of this blog will know I use the picture of social housing in Vienna regularly in my housing blogs – I visited it a few years ago and it’s such a great scheme that I just can’t resist using it again.

For #HousingDay I thought I’d pick out the three most popular blogposts I have written on housing since I first started this blog just over a year ago and here they are:

  1. Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy – my thoughts on party conference season and why it seems politicians are still not taking the housing crisis seriously enough. I also make some comments about a couple of recent books that contribute to the debate – Housing Where’s the Plan? by Kate Barker and Rebuilding Britain by Hugh Ellis & Kate Henderson.
  2. Housing in a civilised society – how did we get it so wrong? – as a novice to the housing debate I talk about how it just doesn’t make sense the way governments in recent decades how tried to address the issues, how our approach is just not logical and how the so called solutions could never be expected to work!
  3. Bristol needs more homes – one of my many blogs about issues in Bristol, my adopted home town, where there is a growing affordability crisis. This blog looks at recent attempts to draw up a plan for housing in the city and questions whether it will go far enough.

Housing is one of the most fundamental issues we face as a society, yet it yo-yos in and out of the opinion polls in terms of whether or not the public think it is an issue of importance, and falls on and off political agendas. Housing Day is a great opportunity to debate the issues and to talk about all the positives, to remind people why social housing is so important and to help point the way towards a better housing future.

Lyons Review – loud roar or polite meow?

lionAfter participating in some of the discussion on the Lyons Review of Housing, submitting some thoughts and seeing the interest generated by the review, I was keen to see what would come out of it. Would it be any different? Would it address the difficult issues? Would it be radical? Well the final report has now been published, so you can make up your own mind whether it delivers on its promise of “Mobilising across the nation to build the homes our children need“. For me it makes some clear statements, some interesting policy changes and does take a different approach, to some extent. It’s not as radical as some would have liked, it doesn’t say much about social housing and perhaps doesn’t go far enough on questions of affordability. But it is at least a clear statement of policy, a comprehensive attempt to address our housing crisis, the first such statement that we have had since the Barker Review. So it is to be applauded for that and is indeed a decent starting point, with clear targets.

The following paragraph is from the text of an email sent out by the Lyons Housing Review and neatly sums up the issues at the heart of the challenge that the report is attempting to address:

We face the biggest housing crisis in a generation, because for decades we have failed to build the homes we need. The consequences of this are widely felt with house prices now 8 times average incomes, rental affordability stretched, increased overcrowding and the impact of house price inflation on national economic management. We simply have to do better, not only because our children and grandchildren need the homes we should be providing now, but because greater house building will make a direct contribution to national economic growth. Housing must become a priority for the nation once again (Lyons housing Review).

The report itself is easy to read and presented in a clear and concise manner, with a useful summary for those that don’t wish to read the full 180 pages! The Roadmap for Delivery sets out the different steps needed to deliver within the timeframe and is a useful guide to what needs to be done and how quickly. Again, it comes across as a practical document, with clear indicators for politicians and civil servants to follow and clear targets against which progress can be measured. My initial thoughts on the report are set out below.

On page 15 the report identifies what for me is one of the biggest contradictions of housing policy and that is the lack of political energy given to an issue where there is general consensus about the existence of a problem and even a crisis. According to the report housing has not been seriously addressed in party manifestos since the 1960s and 1970s – how can that be the case when we have known for years that we are not building enough homes, that housing affordability is getting worse and that young people in particular are finding it harder to access decent housing? The rest of Chapter 1 provides a pretty good summary of the problems we face and why – basically we don’t prioritise housing politically, don’t build enough homes, don’t release enough land for housing, don’t provide enough choice, don’t provide the support infrastructure needed and what we do provide is unaffordable and lacking in quality – I think that about sums it up!

The issue of leadership is top of the agenda – doing something about the housing crisis requires strong leadership at national and local level, it means government and councils will need to prioritise the issue, alongside education, crime, immigration and health, something we haven’t seen for many years. But that’s what it will take and the report looks to government to be strong and to provide councils and communities with the powers and funding they need to deliver the homes required in their area. It also delivers yet another attack on our planning system, identifying it as one of the reasons we don’t build enough homes. Now this may be true, but only because successive governments have constantly tinkered with the system without any real understanding of what the problem is!

Anyway, back to the key points of the report, and there are many. I’m not going to try to cover everything or be comprehensive here, but will pick out some of the more interesting ideas, or the ones that leave me slightly confused.

Firstly, this idea that that councils should be responsible for identifying sufficient land for housing to meet need in their area. I thought this was exactly what the current system of strategic housing market assessments and local development frameworks was supposed to deliver on? Admittedly it has failed in areas of greatest need, but still it’s a system that exists. As far as I can tell, from an initial read of the report, the proposal is to tighten this up, giving councils greater controls over land assembly and site preparation, along with the threat of intervention from the planning inspectorate if they fail to plan properly to meet housing need. A welcome proposal, with many councils stalling and failing at the moment, this may just give them the kick up the backside they deserve. Not quite a return to the regional and national targets we need, but a step in the right direction. Of course the devil is in the detail of identifying need and agreeing targets.

The idea of Housing Growth Areas and New Homes Corporations is another interesting approach, which mirrors some of the national approach to jobs growth, through designated growth areas where councils can seek power, resources and funding to deliver homes at the scale that is needed. A new form of Development Corporation but with a focus on housing – it will be interesting to see if local councils opt for this idea should they have the opportunity in the future and what incentives they would be given to make it worthwhile.

The return of sub regional planning is most welcome, otherwise how else will cities like Bristol meet the demand for housing? The notion of local councils working together to put together a Strategic Housing Market Plan for the sub region is to be welcomed but I do wonder whether or not it will happen where it is most needed. The report makes particular mention of ‘badly constrained’ cities like Bristol, where the time spent negotiating with neighbouring authorities could be significantly reduced. A potentially important change in approach which could benefit Bristol in the future if introduced.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, but entirely expected, is the lack of any policy to increase the ability of councils to borrow more against housing revenue accounts, enabling more council homes to be built. At the moment, nationally there are plans to build 5-6,000 new council homes per year over the next 5 years, compared to 200,000 per year at the peak in 1968 – pathetic but clearly no longer the answer as far as politicians are concerned. Many have asked for the borrowing cap on local authorities to be increased so they can build more, but the proposal in the report does not quite go that far, they suggest there is scope for councils to bid for more flexibility upon delivery of a decent business case. Alternatively they can propose to share borrowing ability not being used by another council. For me, this just doesn’t go far enough, it continues the perception that councils can’t be trusted to be financially sensible. Again it also doesn’t go far enough on Right to Buy – with proposals for a review of whether or not it is meeting its objectives rather than any real acknowledgement of the constraints this puts on the ability of councils to provide social housing for those most in need when the spectre of Right to Buy is always there, hanging over them and reducing the stock they have available.

The need to invest in homes for social rent is raised by the report but it puts off any solutions until austerity measures and the constraints on public spending are a thing of the past or for later review – not good enough, public housing requires public subsidy – housing associations and the private sector cannot be relied upon to fill this gap, and nor should they!

The backing of garden cities and garden suburbs is to be welcomed, using new powers to deliver and provide community benefit, with local councils expected to come forward with proposals. It will be interesting to see if this happens in the areas where housing growth is most needed. Issues of quality and choice are also raised in the report, important considerations often forgotten in the rush to provide numbers.

There are many other recommendations around the role of the volume housebuilding industry, the support and encouragement for more small house builders, the role of housing associations and the role of self and custom build. All important elements of the equation for delivering more housing at an affordable rate where it is most needed.

Having read the report, albeit relatively quickly, my initial thoughts are that it does indeed meet the brief. It provides a good overview of the issues and the challenge we are faced with, it provides clear steps on how we might address those issue and it comes up with some interesting ideas and plans for the future. I was left with the feeling that this was a great piece of work but would only ever make a difference if our politicians are brave enough to tackle the issues head on, make it a priority and provide the leadership on housing that has been sadly lacking for many years. There is a plan there that could work, that needs a bit more radical thinking on some issues but does show a decent amount of ambition. So more of a roar than a meow, let’s just hope our politicians, of whatever party, are willing to show the leadership and ambition we now need to make it happen.

Pick ‘n’ mix housing policy?

380451857_ce9bad11e3_zAs party conference season draws to a close are we any closer to knowing how to deal with the housing crisis? Housing has certainly featured on the agenda and been the subject of much discussion at many fringe meetings, but have any of the parties come close to a comprehensive policy approach? Sadly, my initial conclusion would be that once more politicians have failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem and have instead come up with a whole load of ‘initiatives’ that play at the edges of the issue rather than provide a strategic, co-ordinated and coherent plan. We continue along the lines of a “pick ‘n’ mix” approach to housing policy, where pet projects and short term ‘solutions’ are promoted for electoral gain – appealing to target groups rather than providing solutions for those most in need.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some decent proposals and some that will undoubtedly make a difference to a small number of people. But where’s the plan? From the Tories we got a promise that they would build 100,000 new homes for first-time buyers under 40 which they could buy at 20% below the market rate. An interesting idea perhaps but not one that is going to solve the problem for many! Labour’s announcements were on a grander scale but perhaps lacked a little detail. They talked about building 200,000 homes per year, halting land banking and diversifying the house building industry – all laudable aims but talk is cheap. Where were the policies that many would have expected? The ones that focus on social housing, enabling councils to borrow and build, limiting right to buy options and facing the affordability crisis head on – mostly not there I’m afraid. And so, what have the Liberal Democrats offered us so far on housing? Well perhaps a slightly more comprehensive approach that focuses on building 300,000 homes per year, with new towns and urban extensions as part of the package, more power to local councils to build affordable housing and the ability to suspend right to buy. To be honest they came up with more of what I was expecting from Labour!

We have a housing crisis that means too many people can’t afford to buy or rent decent homes. And on the basis of what we have seen so far from our politicians we can be relatively certain that the comprehensive plans and policies are not going to come from the political parties, so where will the answers come from? We are of course still waiting for the full report from the Lyons Housing Review instigated by Labour, which is due out later this year. But in the meantime there have been a couple of publications that caught my attention. The first, “Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a better future” written by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson is an excellent attempt to hit back at all those who see planning as the problem and instead takes us back to the pioneers of the planning movement and reminds of what is actually possible when you have “passionate ambition”. The second, “Housing: where’s the plan?” written by Kate Barker is more direct in its criticism, describing our inability to build more housing as the UK’s biggest policy failure. Its focus is on analysing the problem and providing some policy recommendations. Both books are excellent in their own way, they raise some interesting questions, provide a more comprehensive assessment of the problems and suggest some practical solutions.

In Rebuilding Britain the authors talk about access to land and land reform as a critical ingredient of achieving utopia, with smart choices needed along the way. As with the original garden city concept, capturing and redistributing the increase in land values generated by development are seen as central to future large scale development. The characterisation of Britain as a divided nation, as a nation without a plan and  where people are disengaged from politics and planning will resonate with many as some of the major concerns we face as a nation. Their ‘solutions’, or practical steps as they are called in the book, focus on planning and take us through five main areas of change including a fair and efficient society; rebuilding trust; building the homes we need; providing a resilient and low carbon future; and paying for utopia.

Underpinning all of these areas is the need for a new kind of planner, a national plan for England, a new structure for planning and a new kind of government – big change indeed! Quite rightly Ellis & Henderson identify the housing challenge as moving beyond the question of whether we need to build more homes (of course we do), to the question of “where to build them, how we fund them, what the mix is and how do we ensure they are high quality”. Their answer is embedded in a new honesty about the problem, the opportunities and the constraints; about quality not just quantity; and through a varied housing offer including “high-quality social, affordable and market homes”. They do of course focus on ‘well planned new communities’ as a big part of the solution, based on Garden City principles which it is hard to disagree with. But as ever the big question is how you pay for the levels of social housing and infrastructure needed to make these places work. Of course the solution is there, it’s the same as it has always been – capturing the increase in land value for the benefit of the community. That’s the exact same principle as garden cities were based on and it remains the obvious solution now. Indeed it happens to an extent now, through S.106 agreements, Community Infrastructure Levy and planning conditions, but it is ad hoc and prone to difficulties and disagreements over viability. The political acceptability of extracting value from land for the benefit of the community has long been debated but perhaps it is time to revisit this issue with a new debate based on need?

Kate Barker’s book is based on the premise that we need to build more homes at a faster rate but that our ability to do this is held back by competing and vested interests that are inherent in our society and by government failure to address the issues systematically. Instead what we get are short term policies and initiatives that satisfy a few. The dynamics of the housing market perfectly exemplify many of the divisions in our society – the widening gulf in wealth between those who own their home and those that don’t and the increasing inequality between generations that this serves to reinforce. Barker suggests that many would define success in housing terms as “everyone should have access to a decent home at a price they can afford”. Difficult to disagree, but as she explains, the terms are open to extensive interpretation – the difference between need and want for instance?

Barker also addresses the thorny issue of taxing housing when so many people have so much of their wealth already tied up in property. Her solution is a mix of proposals from reforming Stamp Duty, higher council tax bands, and a move to charge Capital Gains Tax on main residence – potentially a rather radical suggestion but one which would help to deliver fairer housing outcomes. In total Barker proposes 11 main policy recommendations, which include providing stronger incentives to local authorities to produce sound housing plans, so they take responsibility for increasing local provision, with greater borrowing powers encouraging them to play a bigger role in land assembly. She also calls for direct financial incentives to those affected by a new development, an attempt to reign in the influence of the Nimbys, which may work but is it the right approach? Barker backs the call for garden cities and urban extensions, with new forms of funding and land assembly, as well as the encouragement of self-build as potentially more acceptable in some areas. Above all what Barker is looking for is a steadier, coherent, long term view of how to manage housing supply to meet housing needs – something I’m sure we can all agree on?

The reasons for our housing crisis are undoubtedly complex and embedded in decades of policy failure. The solutions will also be complicated but need to be built on a coherent plan, that deals with a long term approach to immediate problems and resists the temptation to meddle in short term, pick and mix solutions that satisfy no one!