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.

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.

Making the Right Decisions – Stock Transfer in Bristol

Sea Mills There’s a debate that’s happening in Bristol, or at least should be happening, about whether or not the council should keep hold of some or all of its council house stock. I say should be happening because the debate has been neatly set up by the Homes Commission in its recent report published last month – I talked about this report in a recent blog. One of the ten ‘big ideas’ in that report was about making best use of council assets to deliver more affordable housing in the city, an aim supported by just about everyone. However, the difficult bit comes when you mention ‘stock transfer’. The notion of moving council homes out of council ownership has been resisted in Bristol every since the policy came about (mid-late 1980s). Indeed only around 3,000 of the initial 48,000 council stock has been transferred to other registered providers (housing associations) and Bristol remains one of the few big cities to have held onto its council stock, with some 28,000 homes still run and managed by the council (the rest has been lost to Right to Buy).

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