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Social Housing - Liberal Democrats back SHOUT campaign

January 9, 2015 1:03 PM

Cllr Greg Stone moved the following amendment during a debate at Newcastle City Council :

City Council notes that
• The Local Government Association (LGA) has recently highlighted the importance of affordable homes in meeting the aspiration of our residents
• The SHOUT campaign (Social Housing Under Threat) was launched in June 2014 by housing professionals to promote the importance of social rented housing as a major part of solving the national housing crisis
• Funding of social housing is becoming increasingly marginalised with the latest prospectus for bidders from the HCA stating that "social rent provision will only be supported in very limited circumstances"
• Affordable housing is essential to the economic wellbeing of the city as investment in affordable housebuilding creates jobs and provides a long term valuable social asset
• It is important to ensure new housing development supports mixed tenure provision within sustainable communities - including provision of affordable market housing in areas of predominantly social housing and vice versa
• Social housing faces great challenges in meeting the needs of those affected by changes to the welfare benefit system and is coming under increasing pressure from the rising numbers of Council homes likely to be lost through the Right To Buy scheme
• Significantly fewer council houses were built under the previous Blair-Brown Government (an average of 562 per year; 0.3% of the total housing stock built) than under the Thatcher Government (an average of 41,343 per year, or 18.9% of the total housing stock built)
• Through effective identification of brownfield sites, strong partnership working and developing a pipeline of sites which are ready to develop, we have been able to secure over £12m of HCA grant funding for the 2015-18 programme. This will help fund 673 affordable homes; the largest allocation to any area in the North East but still well short of Newcastle's identified requirement of around 3000 affordable homes over the current plan period
• The current council administration has adopted a 15% affordable housing policy within the LDF, halving the 30% policy pursued by the previous Lib Dem council administration, and contrary to previous calls by the Labour group for the council to pursue a 50% affordable housing policy
• A lengthy waiting list for social housing persists in Newcastle

Council therefore resolves to:
i) Support the work of the SHOUT campaign in asserting the positive value and purpose of social housing and the need for greater investment in social housing development, whilst disassociating the council from SHOUT's position that affordable home ownership and market rent should not be supported by Government, and instead pursuing LISTEN objectives (Let's Increase Supply Through Efficiency Now)
ii) Continue to work with Government, the HCA, YHN, RSLs, market housebuilders and other key partners to maximise the supply of affordable housing including social rented housing and to use housing supply to stimulate economic growth and jobs
iii) Support Liberal Democrat policy proposals to allow councils to suspend the right to buy and to lift the borrowing cap on local authority HRA budgets to finance building of more social housing.

Cllr Stone said : This is a motion about social housing, which we strongly support, but in our view the original takes a narrow view of the issue which we believe needs to be looked at a little more carefully. We do not take issue with the bulk of Cllr Talbot's motion and we acknowledge her experience and expertise in the field, but we do feel it is important to set this debate in a wider context.

It is right to state the importance of affordable homes and social housing. It is right to be concerned at the availability of HCA and related funding in constrained times. It is right to be concerned about stock loss through Right to Buy, albeit this is not a new phenomenon, and one which Labour had 13 years to do something about. It is right to be concerned about undersupply of affordable and social rented housing stock, but this again is not new.

Any discussion of the present day should also look at the recent past. 13 years of Labour government delivered an average of just 567 new council houses per year, or 0.3% of the total. This does not compare well with a record of more than 40,000 new council houses per year under Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s. One of the achievements we are most proud of on this side of the chamber is the restarting of council house building under the previous administration after years of abeyance under Labour before us - and putting in place the foundations of the current delivery programme.

Whilst it is true that a significant HCA grant has been secured allowing for 673 new affordable homes to be built, the identified requirement over the current plan period is for more than 3000. There is a long way to go, and it will be made even longer by the planning policies of the current administration. The LDF identifies a 15% affordable housing policy for the period to 2030. This is the adopted policy of the Labour administration - but it represents a halving of the 30% policy pursued when the Lib Dems were in office, when I recall the then Leader of the Opposition angrily demanded we increase this to 50%.

Whilst we can welcome the fact that thanks to the HCA funding more sites and units are coming on stream, there is still a significant difficulty in ensuring an ongoing supply of brownfield land without adequate funding in place for reclamation and site assembly. The squeeze on HCA funding makes this particularly challenging in areas like the North East which have lower land values and are less "viable.

The result is that we still have a significant housing waiting list in Newcastle, a supply pipeline that isn't keeping pace, and an allocations policy which doesn't always offer a lot of hope to those on the waiting list in need of affordable housing [which is why we do not support lifetime tenancies and would prefer to see renewable 5 year tenancies]

There is also an important context in respect of rents policy. There has been a huge increase in housing benefit expenditure under the last Labour government but investment in new housing stock has not kept pace. The housing sector recognises that "bricks rather than benefits" is an important issue - and that the balance between these two has not been maintained. For this reason we don't think that the SHOUT campaign's opposition to "affordable rent" convergence - pursued by successive governments - and perceived opposition to affordable homes for ownership is something we can sign up to.

We also feel it is important to reiterate that we believe that new development should contribute to mixed tenure communities, and that we believe in a mixed housing economy which continues to include affordable home ownership as well as affordable or social rent. We feel it is important to work with private housebuilders and RSLs as well as YHN and Leazes Homes. We would welcome reassurances that the council, through its Fairer Housing Unit, is not pursuing a silo mentality towards social housing and remains committed to a multi-lateral approach.

Finally, Lord Mayor, I would like to take the opportunity to remind council of two important Liberal Democrat party policies adopted by members at the party's autumn conference in Glasgow. We would support giving local authorities the power to introduce moratoria on the right to buy in their area, and we would support giving local authorities the power to increase their HRA borrowing caps to finance new housing development. Those are two positive steps which SHOUT support, and which I hope council will agree strengthen Cllr Talbot's motion. If Labour members agree with the principle of these policies, and I believe they do, they should support the amendment.