Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Some thoughts on housing

A few weeks ago I blogged about housing and the Coalition government's plans. Since then a couple of things have happened: firstly, a consultation paper was published on social housing, secondly the government has decided to review some of its proposals re housing benefit. As someone who is deeply interested and committed to housing issues it has been positive that people have been discussing housing and housing policy but frustrating that a number of Labour politicians, both locally and nationally have sought to inflame the debate rather than help to find solutions to the massive shortage of affordable housing we face in a very difficult economic climate.
As I said in my previous post on this issue I am actively monitoring announcements from government in relation to housing to ensure we get the best and fairest deal for Reading residents. I am keeping an open mind about proposals as far as possible whilst draft policies are put forward and seeking the opinions of others to test my own against. To reiterate, it is a Coalition government so I don't expect to like every policy that is published or even agree with it. That said no one Party won the election so it is important that politicians work together for the good of residents.
One size certainly does not fit all in relation to housing policy. In relation to the first paper, on social housing, Having looked at it and thought about it  I am not very keen on the proposal to introduce shorter fixed term tenancies for Council homes (2 years has been mooted) and would need to be persuaded that this was a good idea before I would consider putting it forward as a proposal in Reading. I would be concerned about upheaval for families and the impact it might have on neighbourhoods.
I personally would like to have seen more emphasis in the paper on tackling the problem of housing supply - this is the main reason housing waiting lists have increased. That said I am very pleased to see that the housing revenue account is set to be reformed and that empty homes may be counted towards new homes in future. We need to do more to increase housing supply after Labour so comprehensively failed on this despite 13 years to do it.
It's worth saying that at this point this is simply a consultation paper and the government is seeking feedback. Thankfully,  unlike the previous Labour government the Coalition Government is not forcing councils to implement every proposal it publishes. That is what localism means after all.  In relation to social housing the CLG consultation paper makes it quite clear that it will be up to councils and elected councillors to decide what is right for their areas. We are currently examining the detail of this paper - there is some welcome new thinking in relation to overcrowding, under-occupancy, empty homes and council house waiting lists which we should consider to ensure we are getting the most out of our social housing stock. The current system of social housing allocation and funding left by Labour is not unproblematic and there might well be things we can do to make it fairer and more equitable to local residents. It is good that these proposals are out to consultation and I look forward to reading others' responses.
In relation to housing benefit, I attended a  meeting a few weeks ago with a group of Liberal Democrat councillors with an interest in housing  to convey some concerns to ministers about some aspects of the proposed housing benefit reforms. Unlike Labour councillors I avoided speculating publicly and in the face of rumours circulating about rented rooms in Reading being block booked I preferred to go on what frontline officers were telling me. Which was...that rooms were not being block booked.
That said some aspects of the reforms do cause me concern and I am pleased that the government has listened to some of the thoughtful comments made by MPs, stakeholders and councillors and decided to delay the implementation of changes to housing benefit for existing claimants. I was concerned that the original timescales might be too short to enable tenants in private rented housing to seek alternative cheaper accommodation, particularly in Reading where rents are high.

Other changes the government announced today  include:
  • Temporarily widening the discretion of local authorities to pay housing benefit directly to landlords. This power will be used to secure tenancies where landlords are willing to reduce rents, helping to push down prices and minimise disruption to families.
  • The government has agreed new funding totaling £190m over 5 years (including £50m announced today) to smooth the transition for families who can no longer afford their rent and need help to adjust. The government has also committed to work with local authorities to ensure that these funds are used to help the most vulnerable, including the elderly, the disabled, and those with children at local schools.
  • The government has also said it will continue to examine options for improving ease of access to the private rented sector for housing benefit recipients.
That said we must not forget that Labour planned to reform housing benefit, however hard they try to deny it.
Despite the difficult economic circumstances we are in, housing projects are continuing to move forward across Reading: extra care and affordable housing is being constructed on Dee Park,  construction of new extra care housing on the old Avenue School site is set to begin soon, and empty homes continue to be brought back into use to name a few projects. In terms of improving existing housing, work continues to bring Council housing up to Decent Homes standard and enforcement activity continues in the private rented sector
As an administration we will continue to work hard to increase the overall supply of housing and ensure support exists for new and existing tenants in both the private rented and social housing sector. We are also in regular contact with tenants, residents, both our MPs, officers, and other stakeholders, to build local support for this vitally important agenda

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