Thursday, 1 April 2010

Action needed to tackle Reading's housing crisis

The Reading Evening Post has picked up on Shelter's campaign to highlight the dire shortage of affordable housing across the UK , including here in Reading. But as I pointed out to Anna Roberts who penned the story - the true picture in Reading is actually even worse than the one Shelter describes. A recent report I commissioned as Chair of the Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny panel investigating the problem of overcrowding in our Borough revealed the number of people on the Council's housing waiting list has risen from around 4,400 in April 2008 to approximately 6,000 in February 2010. There is no doubt that this increase is linked with the impact of the recession - something I have consistently raised as a councillor over the past 2 years. Across Britain this figure rises to 1.8 million families - this is a damning indictment of Labour's failed housing policies. In Reading the demand for larger homes vastly outsrips supply and it's damaging the health and well-being of thousands of children and families in our Town. There are 186 families registered as needed a property with 4 bedrooms or more and only 3 x 5 bedroom properties belonging to the Council! I have been vocal in campaigning to highlight the lack of affordable social homes for families in Reading for years. An independent inspection of RBC agreed with me highlighting lack of family housing. When the housing strategy was discussed I argued for the Council to work with housing associations to provide more larger family houses to help meet local demand for good quality homes. But the timescales for delivery are still too far in the future because the rate of building is just too low. I've also campaigned extensively to get the Council to use it's powers to encourage more landlords to bring empty properties back into use and for standards to be improved in the private rented sector. We struggle in Reading to have the space to build large amounts of new housing so the Council and other housing partners have to be creative about getting more out of existing stock. Over the past 2 years RBC has placed 600 households in the private sector. This is not all the solution but it is part of of it. In Scrutiny last month we discussed the need to review the Council's under-occupiers policy to make moving into smaller homes more appealing to residents and how to get more out of existing council housing. Council officers are not to blame for the housing crisis we face - responsibility lies with the Labour government and it's failed housing policy. The Lib Dems have long argued we need to restore more powers to councils to build social homes and retain council rents. House building in the UK is at it's lowest level since the 1920s and there is an urgent need to build more affordable housing after Labour failed to reverse the damage done by the Conservative's Right To Buy policy which saw many of Reading's family-sized council houses sold off. Under Labour the Treasury has taken millions of pounds worth of tenants' rent when it should have gone on building more council homes locally. The policy of the Labour government has been to focus too much on so-called first time buyers and to overlook can't-afford-to-buyers - the thousands of people who have been priced out of the market. The latest stamp duty cut announced in Darling's pre-election Budget will not help those who have no chance of getting a mortgage or raising enough cash for a deposit. The housing bubble that the Labour government fuelled a few years ago ended up with many people getting into massive debt trying to get a foot on the housing ladder only to find they couldn't keep up repayments on their mortgages. Buy-to-let in Reading has ended up with too many buy-to-leave empty homes. Too many repossessions have taken place in Reading and the recession has had a terrible impact on people - particularly in relation to housing. We need to look at sustainable ways to tackle the housing crisis and to give everyone a fair chance of decent housing. The recently announced Lib Dem policy to bring hundreds of thousands of empty homes back into use as social homes (which would also create thousands of construction jobs) must be part of that package.

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