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The government just doesn’t understand our housing problem…

August 17, 2018 3:33 PM
By Nick Eden-Green in Kentish Gazzette
This article shows that successive Conservative governments have completely failed to tackle the housing crisis. Furthermore, government announcements to build more houses will merely mean local authorities having to grant planning permission on more and more sites with no guarantee that developers will actually build them. With 'affordable' homes costing over a quarter of a million none of this will address the needs of those who cannot afford a home.
Labour continue to demand more of these unaffordable homes and say they will guarantee 30% of all homes built will be in that category. A guarantee they cannot possibly enforce. They also say they will stop landlords charging more than a third of the average wage. A surefire way of reducing still further the amount of rented accommodation on the market. It will certainly mean no larger, and thus more expensive, rental accommodation is available. As this article argues, the only way forward is to allow local authorities to meet local needs with local council housing. With interest rates still at an all time low and councils able to borrow at preferential rates this is the way forwards.

Article Published in the Kentish Gazzette on Thursday 16th August 2018

This week Conservative Westminster politicians made two separate announcements on the housing problem the country faces. The first was on street homelessness and the second on social housing. Quite incredibly neither promised any new money to actually tackle the problem by building more social housing.

Let's go back a step to some causes. In 1980 Margaret Thatcher gave council tenants the right to buy their homes. Great idea. But she failed to do anything about the fact that this would mean an ever dwindling stock of social housing and furthermore she stopped local authorities from building more. That's why we have such a shortage in Canterbury.

Then in 1983 she announced a policy of 'care in the community'. Basically this meant closing down many of our Victorian mental hospitals (some little better than asylums) and caring for those in need in the community. Another great idea. But successive government cuts have reduced the availability of community care so we now have people with mental health, drug and alcohol problems (all frequently interrelated) homeless on our streets. Canterbury is a hotspot for the street homeless. Nationally our district is in the highest category in terms of street homeless per head of local population.

We might think we are addressing the housing shortage in Canterbury. After all our local plan says we will build 16,000 more houses in the green belt. However, we won't build them. Developers will and at developers prices! 30% will be so called 'affordable'. But we have never yet hit our affordable housing targets and in any event 'affordable' means 80% of market price. With average house prices in Canterbury at £350,000 (Zoopla) is £280,000 really affordable? Of course not.

So what is the government doing? Basically making high sounding announcements and shifting the problem back to cash strapped local authorities but with no new money! The £100m they promise comes from other budgets and is a bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Again go back a step. The need for new social housing was never tackled by Labour and dwindled to almost nothing under Cameron. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg consistently demanded money for social housing but says the Conservatives refused it because it created Labour voters! Then, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy Sajid Javid, promised an urgent Green Paper that would be 'the most substantial report of its kind for generations.' This turns out to be little more than making cash strapped local authorities produce a league table of bad landlords! Significantly no new money for more social housing.

Street homelessness and the need for social housing are intimately interlinked. To have two separate government announcements betrays a lack of understanding that there needs to be joined up thinking. Moving money from one budget heading to another won't solve the problem either. Quite simply there needs to be more money for social housing and that is precisely what is not promised. Locally our Conservative run council has recognised the need for more social housing and as a Lib Dem I acknowledge that. But spending way over the odds to convert some student flats into 11 new dwellings in the middle of a student housing estate in Parham Road is scarcely the answer to our problem. Especially when they are selling off almost the same number of dwellings elsewhere.

Street homelessness needs joined up thinking too. If people have mental health problems we need to provide mental health care. For too long mental health has been the Cinderella of the NHS. If people suffer from drug or alcohol problems we need to offer rehabilitation. If people are imprisoned as a result of their problems, as so often the street homeless are, then we need to offer a meaningful alternative when they come out. A place to live and the opportunity to work as a bare minimum. The place to live means social housing. An initial job could easily be arranged along a more formal community payback scheme. We all know there is a huge amount that could be done to improve the community we live in. Clearing litter, cleaning graffiti, weeding flowerbeds, redecorating houses even picking fruit. Some of these could provide training towards a more permanent job. Chucking people out of prison with no job or house or family to go to seems the daftest thing we do, is an utter waste of money and merely guarantees a return to a previous lifestyle.

So what should we aim to do in Canterbury?

  • Spend £100m on building new social housing. If we can borrow £100m to buy Whitefriars then why shouldn't we be allowed to borrow the same sum to build a more useful asset?
  • Demand our share of government money to rehabilitate the street homeless back into society. It can be done and many manage to do it themselves. But about the only real help they get is from local charities.
  • Rewrite the local plan to include social housing as well as affordable.
  • Get the police, the NHS, the prison service, social services and the council to talk to each other. Overall it would save money and improve our community.

Finally, if you want to give to the homeless, give to one of our excellent local or national charities, not to those begging on the street. That way the money is better directed.