Today’s guest blog on housing comes from my Cabinet Lead for Housing, Paul Smith.
The week beginning August 13th was ironically flagged as “housing week” as the oft delayed Social Housing Green paper was being trailed for release. The Secretary of State James Brokenshire had a major article in the Sunday Times headed “My dark times with cancer made me want to wipe out rough sleeping”.
On Monday it was the Rough Sleeping Strategy which emerged. The strategy had been co-produced with national homeless charities and so its core proposals were sound. These included integration of homelessness, mental health and addiction services. The timescale to end rough sleeping by 2027 lacked any real sense of ambition or urgency.
Unfortunately, there were two rather enormous elephants in the room, which the government could not acknowledge because do to so would be to admit that it was the government which had caused the problem it was so keen to solve. The evidence is clear and was repeated on Monday by the charities that helped pen the strategy: we need more social housing and a reversal of reforms to housing benefit. Street and family homelessness started to rise dramatically when the coalition welfare changes started in 2012. In Bristol, recorded street homelessness in now ten times what it was in 2010. The decision in 2010 to stop government funding for social housing was another blow; last year in the whole of England only 5,000 new social homes were built.
The finances of the strategy unravelled by lunch-time. What was previously announced as £100m of new money soon became £50m of new money, and later it was revealed that this extra £50m was reallocated from other (unspecified) housing budgets. Of course, if there is any additional money we can access in Bristol, we will be putting forward bids.
On Tuesday came the Social Housing Green Paper, without any new money for social housing. The big idea seemed to be social housing league-tables and bringing back a regulator for the sector, plus lots of small common-sense changes which make little or no difference to the housing crisis. What we really need in Bristol is an abolition of the right to buy, but instead we received a re-announced consultation on relaxing the spending rules for right to buy money (which is almost deliberately difficult so that the money can go back to the government). Also re-announced was the ability of councils to bid for additional borrowing to build council housing. On Monday I discussed Bristol’s bid with officers who would initially request an additional £25m to double the rate of council house building in Bristol. The council’s scrutiny panel then met to work through the details of the proposals for a local housing company, which will be discussed at September’s cabinet meeting.
On Thursday we had a welcome break from strategies and policies and Marvin and I had an opportunity to wear our hi-viz and hard hats. The plan for 75 new homes at Marksbury Road (my old college) was approved in 2012, but it initially offered no affordable homes. In the 2017 budget the Council approved the Mayor’s proposal for a £57m housing association grant fund. With that fund we have been helping buy additional rented homes on projects around the city or to help housing associations to buy sites in competition with private developers. At Marksbury Road that has provided 24 affordable rented houses and flats, plus it has also levered funding from Homes England to fund 12 shared ownership homes.
For me it has been a housing week, but from the government I’m afraid it’s been housing weak.