It is bizarre at best – and cruel at worst – that councils can borrow to build a swimming pool or a hotel, but not for desperately-needed homes, writes Councillor Phélim Mac Cafferty on the upcoming Autumn budget
November 22nd is the Autumn Statement. It is vital that the Government takes this opportunity to deal urgently with the housing crisis as it is hitting Brighton and Hove.
And we need strong action. Since 2010, the number of people under the age of 45 who can afford their home has fallen one fifth. More is being spent today throughout England and Wales on repairs of homes than on building new homes. Escalating rents have meant that the biggest cause of homelessness is evictions in the private rented sector. Just last week we were reminded through Shelter’s report, ‘Far From Alone,’ that 1 in 69 people in Brighton and Hove are homeless. Our city is ranked 20th of UK cities for homelessness, surpassing many London councils.
So called ‘affordable’ housing is too often anything but. National planning laws embrace so-called “developer viability” and cause huge concerns to us. Developers hide behind ‘viability assessments’ to protect their profit margins and have meant that in just 11 councils they contributed to 79% fewer affordable homes. Yet the truth is that ways to fix the housing crisis are being ignored. The Government continues to block Councils from borrowing to build more genuinely affordable housing. Homes lost under the failed ‘Right to Buy’ scheme are not replaced like for like. There are very few ways we can force developers to publish their profits when they claim they can’t build more affordable housing.
Green Councillors have been lobbying through the body that represents councils- the Local Government Association- to try and fix the broken housing market. That work has been ongoing all the time I have been elected but has intensified since the government launched its Housing White Paper in the spring. Locally we have been busy too: fighting successfully for lower rents on Council homes, putting more money in the pot to re-buy housing we lost, and to create additional night shelters for rough sleepers.
The best way to solve the housing crisis is to let our Council build. It is bizarre at best – and cruel at worst – that councils can borrow to build a swimming pool or a hotel, but not for desperately-needed homes. Especially at a time when interest rates for council borrowing have been so low, we need to be able to invest in a new generation of council homes fit for the 21st century.
Greens say that the Government must take the opportunity presented in the Autumn Statement to let councils keep 100% of the receipts of homes sold under the failed ‘Right to buy.’ Councils must once again be able to provide homes to those on low incomes.
The housing crisis is an urgent priority but any new homes must be affordable, in the right places, and have adequate infrastructure and services. The Budget must deliver powers and fiscal incentives for councils to build our local economy. Last year more than 475,000 new homes in England and Wales had planning permission but are yet to be built and that means we also need powers at a local level to make sure developers build out the housing schemes they have planning consent for.
We will be following the details as they are announced on Wednesday. Two years ago, after criticising the Green Councillors for presenting a letter to Government ministers demanding a better deal for our council as an “empty gesture”, it has been interesting to watch Labour leader of the Council Warren Morgan now sending a letter to…Government ministers. The new funding he speaks of is of course desperately needed, as indeed it was two years ago. But when it comes to the Conservative Government, we don’t have the ‘shared goals’ that he refers to – or any gratitude for their work so far. And instead of accepting corrosive changes to our NHS and seeking more funding for ‘Sustainable Transformation Plans,’ Greens want to oppose them. The Government must provide better support in their budget to local people and to our city – but, on the evidence so far, we won’t get it by asking them nicely.
Whilst we remain hopeful that the Government will act, we must be determined that if they don’t, we will continue to lobby for sufficient funding and powers that tackle the housing crisis and actually make a difference for local residents. If there are concessions around housing in the next budget, the success will lie with campaigners and those lobbying hard to get the Government to wake up and listen.
Phélim Mac Cafferty is the convenor of the Green Group of Councillors in Brighton and Hove and ward Councillor for Brunswick and Adelaide