Talking housing with Reading tenants and local MPs
On Friday morning I went to South Reading Community Centre on Northumberland Aveue in Whitley to discuss housing policy with tenants and our two local MPs, Alok Sharma and Rob Wilson. The meeting was organised by Reading Federation of Tenants and Residents Groups. I was really pleased to attend this meeting as I think it is important that Council tenants indeed all residents get the chance to quiz politicians about the reasons behind their policies and decisions all year round not just at election time. I am passionate about housing so I do not need an excuse to talk about it! Although we do not agree on everything it was really good to see our two MPs engaging in this important debate.
However, with the passage of the Localism Bill in Parliament power to decide our local housing policy in Reading does not sit in Westminster with MPs but locally with tenants and Councillors. I think this is a really positive development after housing policy was dictated for years by Whitehall under the previous Labour Government.
This localist approach puts the Council and more importantly Council tenants in a much stronger position to influence develop housing policy locally. For this reason we are developing tenant scrutiny so that tenants can challenge the Council more effectively.
Since the Coalition Government came into office last May I have tried to be as open as possible about my views on housing reforms and I've been no slouch when it comes to speaking up for and making changes to improve life for local tenants:-
My overarching commitment to residents is to try as far as possible to do what is best for Reading residents and to stand up for the rights of tenants in both Council and private-rented housing
We are keen to get more out of our existing Council housing stock in particular increasing the supply of family-sized affordable housing by reducing under-occupancy and to develop a Tenancy Strategy which is as fair as possible on all residents seeking low-cost housing
I have expressed concerns about the impact of some changes to housing benefit which were dropped as a result of Lib Dem influence in Government (and critical of the cynical way in which Labour have manipulated the issue for their own end)
During the meeting the most frequent issue raised by tenants present was about the introduction of fixed-term tenancies. I was happy to repeat what I have said to Government, in Council and in Get Reading that we have no plans to introduce fixed term tenancies for new Council tenants. Both Reading MPs confirmed in the strongest possible terms that the Government is not proposing to bring in new fixed term tenancies for existing Council tenants.
It was sad to hear that some tenants are still very worried about this issue and it is pretty obvious who is to blame for this. Labour nationally and locally have sought to spread confusion, misinformation about the government's housing policy which I think is disgraceful. Cllr Deborah Edwards, Labour housing spokesperson on Reading Borough Council attended the meeting and I was pleased that she did not seek to do this. That said, neither did she apologise for some of the comments that have been made by some of her Party colleagues, which is a pity as I do not think scaring tenants and vulnerable people constitutes good politics. Labour attack Coalition policies because they want to distract attention from their own dire record when it comes to building new council homes in particular
Other issues that were raised at the meeting including the need to build more Council and affordable housing, disabled facilities grants and providing appropriate housing for older people. I agreed that these are pressing issues and critical given we face an ageing population. We are making progress on all these areas on the Council, including with the construction of the first new Council-owned Council-managed extra care housing in Katesgrove in Reading.
Two representatives from local charity Berkshire Women's Aid attended the meeting and raised concerns about access to Council housing for vulnerable women. I will be investigating this issue to check we are doing everything we can to support these women. All in all a very worthwhile meeting.