In a recent Derbyshire Times column, Natascha Engel, MP for North East Derbyshire, wrote:
“Anyone who follows the news knows that there is a national housing shortage. In some places there is a housing crisis.
For those people who are stuck on a housing list, waiting and bidding for a council house, always just missing out, it can be a personal tragedy.
But building more houses, deciding what kind of houses and where they should be built, that is a matter for local and national government. It is an issue which needs urgently to be addressed.”
In an earlier piece, Natascha also called for changes to the planning regime to ensure that local people benefit directly from a development rather than having all the gain going to the investors; for instance, how about free energy for people living near a proposed wind-farm?
And on 27 July, around forty members of North East Derbyshire Labour Party came together along with Natascha and Chris Williamson, MP for Derby North, to develop some policy ideas to feed into the national debate.
This article brings all of this together and concludes with six specific policy proposals.
The story so far
Over the generations, since the end of the First World War, councils have had more or less responsibility for providing housing for rent. At first it was a matter of meeting increased demand for “homes for heroes” for those returning from the war.
The provision of decent housing has also been a public health issue. In the Victorian era urban corporations built sewers to improve living conditions and councils took that further with the great slum clearances in the 1930s and again after 1945.
The number of people living in council houses increased dramatically as more councils built more homes. Council housing provided low rents, secure tenure and decent homes for working class families.
Then, in 1979, the then Conservative government introduced the Right to Buy. Between 1979 and 1987, just over 1 million council homes were sold. Today, council houses are often considered socially undesirable, accommodating those on benefits and who are socially immobile. This perception has been created over many years of government policies spurred on in the 1980s with the shift towards privatisation and the expansion of housing associations.
The current government is speeding up the Right to Buy by giving greater incentives for tenants to buy their homes and making it even harder for councils to build.
In North East Derbyshire there are about 22 people bidding for any advertised council property. That is 21 disappointed people still looking for somewhere to live.
In addition, North East Derbyshire has an ageing population and many council houses have become under-occupied as a result of grown-up families moving out. As well meeting the needs of older people, there is a desperate need for smaller houses and flats for single people and couples without children.
Homelessness and rough sleeping is on the increase and will become more problematic as a result of Housing Benefit cuts. Overcrowding is also more likely to increase as families share homes to try to reduce the impact of less income. More and more people are finding it difficult to obtain a home of their own. Rents in the private sector are increasing and cuts in benefit levels makes this type of housing less affordable for low income families. There are already cases reported where landlords are pulling out of the rented market because letting to people in receipt of benefits will become increasingly risky due to welfare reform changes.
At the same time the economy remains in recession. The jobs that a house-building programme would bring are also desperately needed. A proper strategy will respond to local circumstances. What is needed in rural North East Derbyshire will be different to what is needed in inner city Sheffield. The situation in the South of England is very different from that in the North. Local councils are best-placed to know and respond to these differing needs.
An inadequate response from the Coalition
In an attempt to address the problem of housing the current government has introduced the New Homes Bonus Scheme. This scheme is an incentive to local authorities to approve planning applications for housing development. For every home that is built local authorities will receive the value of council tax per property for a six year period. However, local authorities will receive smaller grants from central government which means that the scheme will not generate any new real additional resource.
Additionally, the Government has introduced the National Planning Policy Framework which relaxes planning rules, encourages development and comes with a presumption in favour of sustainable development including on green fields. This legislation therefore could be seen as tilted in favour of developers.
The introduction of the Localism Bill is intended to give communities greater responsibility. The Government has identified planning as a factor holding house-building back even though there is little evidence to support this position. There remains a need to take proper account of people’s concerns where planning is concerned. It is not right that the first a community hears about a proposed development is either rumour or after a planning application has been made.
Alongside all of this, the government is hitting those on low incomes with:
- Cuts in housing benefit – the introduction of a £500 benefit cap.
- Under-Occupancy Rules (Bedroom Tax) – reduction of benefit where bedrooms are not occupied.
- Direct Payments (four weekly and in arrears) – Tenants to receive housing benefit direct with concerns that this will lead to a further increase in rent arrears – resulting in eviction and more homelessness.
- Rent Convergence –The Government believes that the gap between Council rents and Housing Association rents should be smaller resulting in increased rents for social housing tenants.
An alternative approach and a six-point plan
Instead of taking housing away from local councils, government should be giving them more incentives to hold on to it, to keep housing stock in good condition and to build more homes.
More houses are needed and more jobs are needed. Local councils need a government that gives them the power to provide both; specifically:
- There needs to be more affordable/low-cost homes available.
- There is a need for a good social mix in our communities; new housing developments should reflect this.
- An expansion of Council Housing is a key component of the mix of accommodation required to meet the needs of working people.
- Self-build schemes should be encouraged to train people for work as well as extending (shared) home ownership.
- The planning regime should oblige developers to consult local people before an application is made and which requires community benefits to be at the centre of any proposal.
- The Government should give local councils the power to force house building on derelict brownfield sites which developers already own before they build on greenfield or even start on the greenbelt land.