Faces on the frontline
From community tensions to high demand and low affordability, Simon Ellery hears from councillors in areas with acute housing problems.
Councillors in charge of housing are up against it. This summer the Local Government Association warned that up to 5 million people could be on council housing waiting lists by 2010.
And that could be a conservative estimate thanks to the rising number of repossessions. In the first half of this year there were 18,900, a 48 per cent increase on the same period in 2007. On top of this, the latest figures show housing starts have fallen.
And that’s not all. With the economy suffering, the housing brief is becoming ever more complex. Last week, Labour Party members voted in favour of local authorities receiving Housing Corporation development grant (Inside Housing, 26 September).
A growing number of councils, together with landlords and lenders, are examining mortgage rescue plans for those struggling to make mortgage repayments.
Meanwhile, Whitehall is mulling over plans to allow town halls to act as guarantors for mortgages.
Planning is now linked to the housing portfolio more than ever following overhauls designed to speed it up, including encouraging more brownfield development.
Ministers hope to increase the ability of councils to elicit more affordable housing from developers through the new community infrastructure levy, included in the Planning Bill now before Parliament.
It’s little wonder the Improvement and Development Agency has published a new guide aiming to help councillors face today’s challenges. Foundation for the future, a councillor’s guide to strategic housing, breaks down acronyms and offers town halls advice on negotiations with developers, empty property owners and registered social landlords.
To find out what its like to hold the modern-day housing portfolio, Inside Housing spoke to councillors in areas facing acute problems. Here are their takes on the challenges ahead.
Foundation for the future, a councillor’s guide to strategic housing is available to download at www.idea.gov.uk
Executive member for housing and deputy leader (Labour), Barking & Dagenham Council
Area population: 170,000
Tenure mix: 66.3 per cent owner occupied, 20,000 council tenants
Length of time in post: Councillor for 10 years, executive member for housing for four and a half years
Need to know: The rise of the British National Party in Barking & Dagenham Council in 2004 raised community tensions – particularly around the issue of who gets housing. Now the council is trying to set the pace with its local housing company.
How would you describe the local housing market? ‘It’s crazy at the moment, when you consider what these houses cost to build in the 1930s and what they cost now. It is pricing young people and first-time buyers out of the market – and creating a financial time bomb for people who have overstretched themselves to buy their own home.’
What is the strategic housing role? ‘To ensure that the stock we have is maintained to the highest levels – and that we are allowed to build more of it. It is also very important that the housing needs of families are met. And that people who are in need, vulnerable or elderly do not fall through the net.’
What is the biggest challenge you face as the portfolio holder? ‘To ensure that our allocations are fair and open. This is why we have switched to a bidding system that helps make the allocation of homes a lot more transparent. We are also the focus of a lot of myths and rumours about who should and shouldn’t get housed first.’
What is the most commonly overlooked aspect of the strategic housing role? ‘That local authorities are the main providers of quality social housing and accountable to the local community. Housing associations are unelected, unaccountable and provide homes of a lower standard.’
What advice would you give someone new to the role? ‘Talk to tenants. Visit high-rise blocks and ask yourself if you would like to live on the 16th floor with your family. Put yourself in their shoes before taking decisions.’
What is your most satisfying achievement in the role? ‘The demolition of the unpopular Lintons development to make way for the… [borough’s] local housing company.’
‘I also think our bids for government grants to extend and convert properties for larger families are a very good move.’
What are the most important skills for a strategic housing councillor? ‘Understanding the local issues. Giving choices to tenants so that their homes are theirs and not something imposed on them by the council.’
Does central government fully grasp the role? ‘They seem to now. Things have improved under Gordon Brown. There is now a genuine attempt to push social housing up the agenda.’
Do you have enough clout with private developers and developing housing associations? ‘This is an area that can sometimes be difficult, because we do not always have a lot of influence. I find that developers don’t always take local issues and needs into account. I mean, what’s an “affordable home” to them can be totally out of reach to local people on a minimum wage.
‘That is why I think the local housing company is the way forward. For the first time, we will get the expertise of private developers, but combine it with the council’s accountability and grasp of local issues.’
How has the credit crunch changed your housing strategy? ‘It hasn’t. We have been aware of the problems with over-pricing and have asked for units to be priced according to local needs. It also helps that we were a debt-free authority for years, and we’re still pretty close to that strong position even now.’
What is the ideal balance between social and market housing? ‘I don’t believe there is an ideal. You can’t just go and pull a figure out of the air. The balance must reflect the needs of the local community, because each development is individual. However, issues such as transport networks, schools, leisure and the environment must all be taken into consideration.’
Portfolio holder for housing and health (Conservative), North Devon Council
Area population: Approximately 91,500
Tenure mix: About 10 per cent is social housing; 3.75 per cent of houses are second homes; 34 per cent of private sector housing is non-decent
Time in post: Since May 2007, councillor since 2003
Need to know: North Devon Council has a high number of second homes, a small council housing stock and high demand for social housing. The housing crisis burst to the surface recently when the council was forced to break government rules and house families in caravans as a last resort. Seven of the authority’s neighbourhoods are among the most deprived 2 per cent in the country. Average annual earnings are £15,021 – 25 per cent less than the national average. House prices are 16 per cent higher than the national average, giving a house price to income ratio of almost 18 to 1.
What is the strategic housing role? ‘In my view, the strategic role is one where the council takes account of the views and needs of communities, government and our partners and then works in a partnership to address them.
‘I see my key role in this as an enabling and facilitating one with the voluntary and private sector together with housing associations.’
What is the biggest challenge you face as the portfolio holder? ‘Providing new affordable housing. This problem is exacerbated in North Devon because the area has a combination of both high house prices and low incomes. This is a situation compounded by inward migration of retired and second homeowners.’
What is the most commonly overlooked aspect of the strategic housing role? ‘It has to be the promotion and identification of sites suitable for new homes, liaising with the private sector and housing associations. The issue of rough sleepers is also often overlooked and this is an area with an unusually high number of rough sleepers.’
What advice would you give someone new to the role? ‘Ensure that the planning policies complement the role of providing affordable housing – this is really important. And make sure a reasonable amount of affordable housing is provided in all private sector developments.’
What is your most satisfying achievement? ‘Probably changing the culture of the council to ensure housing is a top priority.’
What are the most important skills for a strategic housing councillor? ‘Knowing when and how to use your political leadership skills to promote the council’s objectives.’
Does central government fully grasp the role? ‘The recognition of housing issues is improving but the current government does not recognise the full extent of the problems that are being faced by rural areas such as north Devon.’
Do you have enough clout with private developers and developing housing associations? ‘Our relationship with housing associations works well because of our common interest in providing affordable housing.
‘There is some tension with private developers because of the conflict between the council’s requirement on the developers that they set out to provide a certain percentage of affordable housing.’
How has the credit crunch changed your housing strategy? ‘We have amended our affordable housing target to ensure it’s achievable without developers – so we have a grant aid-only target for affordable housing provision and we’ve adopted a new homelessness strategy, including an objective to have in place a series of measures to reduce the likelihood of mortgage repossessions.
‘We are about to launch a new service in the county court with Citizens Advice and are looking at introducing a mortgage rescue scheme.’
What is the ideal balance between social and market housing? ‘I don’t know about what an ideal balance might be, but we seek around 35 per cent of all new housing to be affordable (for sale and rent).’
Cabinet member for housing (Conservative), Westminster Council
Area population: Just under 245,000, predicted to increase to 260,000 by 2011
Tenure mix: 34 per cent owner occupiers; 13 per cent council tenants; 16 per cent housing association tenants; 36 per cent private rented sector. Around 13 per cent of households receive local housing allowance
Length of time in role: Since May 2008, councillor since May 2006
Need to know: Westminster Council was the scene of the infamous ‘homes for votes’ scandal in the 1980s, during which ex-council leader and Tesco heiress Dame Shirley Porter sold off council homes in marginal wards to boost Tory votes.
What is the strategic housing role? ‘To ensure that Westminster residents have access to good quality, affordable housing.’
What is the biggest challenge you face as portfolio holder? ‘In central London demand always outstrips supply. There has also been a decrease in government funding.’
What is the most commonly overlooked aspect of the strategic housing role? ‘The importance of local knowledge. A robust grasp of finance is also vital.’
What advice would you give someone new to the role? ‘I think it is hugely important to allow time to really get to grips with the complexities of housing needs in the area.
‘When I was given responsibility for housing in Westminster, I made it my priority to get out to see all the social housing in the borough with ward councillors.
‘I also think it’s vital to make time to listen and really engage with residents.’
What is your most satisfying achievement in the role? ‘While I have only been in the job for a few months, I would say our work on increasing supply.
‘Five hundred new homes are being developed on existing council estates through the community build programme – these are new homes on housing land where densities are lower in comparison with surrounding areas.’
Does central government fully grasp the role? ‘Central government does not presently have a full grasp of the complexities of housing provision and could do more to enable the delivery of more housing – including both social rented and intermediate. Intermediate housing opportunities should be made available to a broader range of people including those struggling to get a foot on the property ladder.
‘The government doesn’t grasp the true cost of temporary accommodation, particularly for councils with high rents such as Westminster. The cap on subsidy is set at a level which doesn’t cover costs, and the shortfall is met by the council tax payer.
‘I think that the [housing revenue account] redistribution of subsidy is unfair and tenants’ rents should be spent on their local housing needs.’
Do you have enough clout with private developers and developing housing associations? ‘We do have clout with private developers and our planning policy is very clear about the affordable housing requirement.
‘We have a close relationship with developing housing associations but we do have some concerns about housing association management of homes locally.’
How has the credit crunch changed your housing strategy? ‘Westminster has not seen the same property downturn as in other boroughs and the rest of the UK. Affordability is a major issue and a key concern for residents with properties far beyond the reach of low to middle income earners.
‘Ensuring there are housing choices for middle income people wanting to remain in the City [of Westminster] is a key objective of the housing strategy and an intermediate housing service is being developed.’
What is the ideal balance between social and market housing? ‘The cost of land in Westminster makes it very difficult for housing associations to compete with the private sector and build stand-alone developments.
‘In terms of balance, the biggest issues we face relate to the size of social rented homes and the range of intermediate housing products on offer.
‘When it comes to intermediate housing we find that there are a great number of households who fall between eligibility for social renting and the ability to fund market housing outright.
‘Mixed tenure housing is fundamental to creating communities that are inclusive and socially cohesive.’