Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Never let facts get in the way of a good (housing) story

Now that the local Labour Party is no longer running Reading Borough Council they clearly have a lot of extra time on their hands which, sadly, they appear to be using to spread misleading, inaccurate stories about policies of the Coalition Government and the Coalition Council. On the plus side they have finally discovered Twitter - which is to be welcomed. They were seemingly the last political Party in Reading to do so, but never mind they got there in the end.
Don't get me wrong - I have no problem with Labour issuing press releases. It's reasonable to expect politicians of all colours will try and political points - we've all done it.
What saddens me is the way in which the local Labour Party indulges in scaremongering in an attempt to grab the headlines. Who benefits from this approach? Not local people, that's for sure. The people it hurts is the worst off - people who are depending on politicians for help and support.
It's not a new tactic. We've seen it before in Reading. Yet again Labour are reverting to their age old tactic of scaring the electorate into voting for them - forgetting of course that local voters possess a) a memory and b) a brain which enables them to see through Labour spin.
The fact is, that since May I've yet to read a press release from Reading Labour Party iwhich has contained one constructive idea in it or indeed any details about how their policies would be paid for.
Let's not forget, going into the election Labour was committed to making £44 billion pounds worth of cuts. And at least part of those savings were going to be in welfare - that much is clear.
Take housing, for instance. You'd think wouldn't you that after the parlous record of the previous Labour government when it comes to building new homes, local Labour councillors would want to keep quiet on that subject locally. I've blogged loads about this in recent years because I think access to decent housing is a basic human right and I have spent the last few years campaigning to help make this a reality for people living in Reading.
Anyway, back to housing, and below are some statistics you won't be reading in a Labour Party Press Release any time soon:

Between 1997-2010:
  • New homes built = 559,000 (337,000 for rent and 192,00 low cost home ownership
  • Homes sold: 605,000
  • Reduction in homes in the overall social housing sector: 45,530 in 13 years
  • Reduction in homes available for social rent: 227,000 homes fewer homes to rent
  • Housing waiting list: nationally went up 741,000 - leaving 1,763,000 families waiting for a home
  • Unrealistic nationally-imposed housing targets: fell short by 78,000 homes last year
  • Housing benefit bill went from £10 billion to £21 billion

And locally, under Labour management of Reading Borough Council:-

  • Hundreds of family-sized Council homes in Reading were sold off and not replaced.
  • The waiting list for social housing rose to over 4,000
  • As a result the number of families in overcrowded accommodation soared.
  • Flats were crammed onto back gardens as a result of John Prescott's planning policies - over 90 % of new-build properties in Reading over the past two years have been flats adding to the pressure on larger properties
  • The private-rented sector expanded unchecked -with little or no regulation of the sector
  • A booming buy to let market which pushed up rents and that is quickly turning into a buy to leave market in some areas
  • Hundreds of private homes left empty because the Council had no strategy to reduce the number
  • The number of houses of multiple-occupation increased leaving many neighbourhoods struggling to cope until an in depth scrutiny investigation led by myself and Cllr Ricky Duveen prompted action

This week Labour activists were busy once again spreading misinformation about Coalition policies about housing.Their press release quoted pretty much wholesale in the Evening Post states:

"London borough councils are already block-booking B & B rooms in Reading to house people who will lose their homes."

Wrong. To my knowledge no such block-booking is taking place. And it really isn't difficult to find this out. All Labour councillors needed to do was to check with officers at the Council, as I did when I heard this rumour and they would have found there is not a grain of truth in this. Labour locally are simply repeating the misinformation promulgated by Ed Miliband and others.

It's disappointing that former 'independent' councillors in Reading have fallen into the same trap. In addition it seems the latest Labour candidate for Redlands (a ward Labour have failed to win for the last four years) is failing to check her facts before she opens her mouth, claiming that "Redlands is likely to be a ward hit by the housing benefit cap." She then misrepresents some recent announcements about HMOs and claims that the 'delicate balance' between family housing and HMOs could be at risk in some parts of my ward.

I can reassure readers that this description could not be further from the truth. I'm prepared to give Labour's latest candidate for Redlands the benefit of the doubt but on the evidence of this outburst she clearly doesn't know her ward that well.

I can show her plenty of streets where Labour councillors over the years turned a blind eye to issues such as HMOs and the housing mix - indeed any sense of balance of housing types! Until a couple of years ago you barely heard Labour councillors even mention the private rented housing sector, let alone student housing.

As Lead Member for Housing and ward councillor for Redlands I prefer to base my information on unbiased, professional sources - like the Council's housing department and the Department for Communities and Local Government. Based on current data I have seen the numbers of people in Reading who would be affected by the cap at the moment is likely to be very small.

It's worth saying that these proposals have not been introduced yet and at the moment Labour are dining out on 100 % pure speculation. This is pretty scandalous when you think that people on housing benefit are not well off and have enough to worry about without Labour adding to their concerns.

As a responsible administration we are monitoring the situation all the time and we will work to ensure support is available for those who find themselves in housing need as a result of any changes. Because I think the role of councillors is to find solutions, not cause alarm.

I do think it's right however that there is an incentive to work and I'm not sure it is fair if people claiming housing benefits can afford to live in areas other families cannot afford to. And that's not the only issue. Labour in government were happy to consign millions of people to a life on benefits and all the problems such as ill-health that can cause rather than helping them out of poverty. That is the real scandal.

Nowhere in the Labour press release do they spell out an alternative to a continuation of high rents and high benefits bills. And on the subject of facts, here is one that Labour activists new and old, from Redlands to Southcote prefer not to acknowledge: in their 2010 Manifesto Labour pledged to reform housing benefit and limit the amount of housing benefit families could claim.

When I raised this on BBC Radio Berkshire, Cllr Pete Ruhemann claimed not to have heard me - despite the fact he was sitting in a radio studio, presumably wearing headphones. Nevermind, I don't think the listeners will have misheard what I said or his silence on the issue.

On Coalition housing policies some facts:

  • Proposals to offer fixed-term tenure and alter rent levels are optional i.e. will not be imposed from the centre.
  • If adopted they will only apply to new tenants and with rents covered by housing benefits

It will be down to Reading Borough Council and councillors to decide in consultation with tenants groups what is appropriate for Reading. I will be scrutinising the proposals when they are published by government and only progressing them if I think they have the potential to help local families and individuals and improve the housing situation.

As I said on the radio, I do have concerns about some the proposals but in general I prefer to base my decisions on factual information not guesswork and scaremongering from the local Labour Party, who have demonstrated time after time they are not on the side of local residents and tenants.

Andrew Stunell, Lib Dem local government minister has pledged that the Coalition wil be the first government to make a net addition of homes to the social housing sector since 1979. This is a big ask and I am many others will keep the pressure on to ensure the government delivers where Labour so comprehensively failed. In the meantime, when it comes to housing, a little honesty and a little humility from Labour wouldn't go amiss.

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