Monday, 1 February 2010

Campaigning for decent homes for all

Housing - lack of good quality, affordable housing - is something that I care deeply about as anyone who knows me will tell you.

I spend a lot of time on housing casework because I think it's some of the most important work I do as a local councillor and because I have seen the difference better housing makes to people.

I feel good about campaigning for better housing and the more I do the more I realise the amount of work that needs to be done before everyone in Reading is able to live in what you and I would consider decent accommodation.

Good housing can transform someone's life chances - and bad housing can cause irreparable damage too.

A good home - a place where you can be safe, happy and comfortable - something many of us take for granted - is something I think everyone in Reading and everyone in Britain should have a basic right to.

I have been Lib Dem housing spokesperson on Reading Borough Council since 2006 and I have campaigned extensively for better standards in both the private rented sector and social housing (mainly council-owned properties) in Reading.

People who have been along to Council meetings where housing is on the agenda will have grown used to hearing me getting a bit steamed up about housing issues in Reading.

No doubt Labour and Tory councillors alike are sick of me banging on about bad housing (and Labour's bad track record) but I will continue to go on about this stuff as long as people keep on contacting me with their housing problems and I have breath in my body.

A Labour councillor accused me last week in Council of changing my tune since I've become a PPC.

As if!!

I haven't suddenly got worked up about housing because I'm now a prospective parliamentary candidate: I've been bothered about bad housing in Reading ever since I was first elected.

Labour-run RBC has neglected all types of housing over the years - this is something which surprised me when I first began campaigning because I thought Labour politicians were supposed to care about affordable housing.

Labour councillors have allowed developers to fill the Town centre with hundreds of executive rabbit-hutches but they have failed to build the type of housing local people actually need.

But housing is not just about bricks and mortar: neighbourhoods matter too, and I've campaigned long and hard to get estates made cleaner, greener and safer.

Why should the quality of life for residents living on estates be any less good than other residents? I think everyone has a right to live in a decent neighbourhood.

Labour's pursuit of the nationally-driven "decent homes" agenda has meant that council estates in many parts of Reading have been allowed to become rundown and blighted by anti-social behaviour. This is a direct result of a serious lack of investment in the right things over a period of years.

I persuaded Labour to back my plan for a 'Decent Neighbourhoods Fund' - a pot of money to improve estates in Reading. I've seen the benefits this can bring in my own backyard - on Hexham estate where genuine community-involvement is driving improvement from the ground up (not Labour's failed top-down approach).

I want everyone living on an estate in Reading to see the improvements we have seen on Hexham Road come to their area. The residents of Dee Park have had to wait too long and many tenants in other estates in Reading are still waiting for improvements.

After the millions spent by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair's governments in our name this really isn't good enough.

And its not just estates that have problems in Reading. Areas with large amounts of private rented housing - and HMOs (houses of multiple occupation) also have their fair share of problems - conversions without proper planning permission, overflowing bins, parking issues.

All these things make parts of Reading less appealing places to live. And this should matter to politicians.

I dedicated a large amount of my time and energy last year to getting the Labour-run Council in Reading to focus some effort into the much-neglected private rented housing sector.

The scrutiny review I led was very successful - we won £120,000 worth of investment in improving the sector and got officers to focus on finding solutions to the problems faced by tenants and residents living in parts of town with lots of HMOs.

More recently I campaigned for help for tenants in private rented housing who face eviction due to problems faced by buy-to-let landlords in the recession. I'm pleased to see that this issue is now getting more attention from MPs in Parliament.

For details of the housing campaigns I've run over the past four years check out my ward blog.

Anyway, back to today and I was alarmed by a report published by campaigning charity, Shelter, today which has found concrete evidence that lack of affordable housing in the UK is literally tearing families apart.

Shelter's study found:

- 1.5 million adults saying they are unable to look after their elderly parents because they can’t afford to live near them.

- 1.5 million grandparents say they are missing out on helping take care of their grandchildren because their own children can’t afford to live close by.

- One in ten parents believe their children want to live closer to them but are unable to due to soaring housing costs.

-22 per cent of 18-34 year olds stated that they were still living at home, with 45 per cent of these people blaming high housing costs.

- Over 50% this group reported that developing and maintaining relationships was harder because of living at home with their parents.

I see evidence of this everyday in my ward and across Reading.

So what does the housing crisis look like in Reading in statistics?

Questions I posed last year revealed:

  • 5,000 people waiting for Council housing

  • Average wait time for a three bed Council/RSL property in Reading: 20 months

  • Average wait time for a four bed Council property in Reading: 22 months

Behind these figures are heartbreaking stories of people young and old desperate to get access to better housing for themselves and their families.

I'm not blaming the Council officers, they do their best to help people get further up the ladder but their simply aren't enough houses to go round. The blame for the chronic shortage of social homes to rent being built in Reading lies squarely at the door of the Labour government which has failed to deliver on it's promise of decent homes for all, by failing to allow councils to build enough council houses for their communities.

I am particularly concerned about the number of families living in overcrowded accommodation so I have commissioned a scrutiny review into this particular problem to report back to HHCC Scrutiny Panel soon. I have led a campaign in Reading for more affordable family-sized homes to rent to help reduce the number of families who are currently overcrowded.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the radical Lib Dem plan to turn the thousands of empty homes in Britain into much needed homes to rent for people on low incomes.

I will continue to campaign to keep housing high up the local political agenda in Reading - even if Labour and the Tories would prefer not to talk about it.

I am supporting Inside Housing magazine's House Proud campaign to get housing on the national political agenda at the forthcoming General Election. Please add your name to the petition to ensure that the housing crisis is the focus of all the major parties' attentions in the coming weeks.

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