Archive for December, 2010

State control of the private rental market would be a big mistake

We had a very interesting Council meeting last week, which was dominated by debate over the Bright Start Nursery (I have blogged my statement on this below so won’t say anything more at this stage). But it was also particularly interesting in relation to a couple of housing matters.

Firstly, the Green Party and Labour Party united in coalition to support a notice of motion advocating state-control of the private rental market. In my view, this would be pure madness. Rent regulation has been tried before and failed. Economists from all sides of the political spectrum, have criticized rent regulation as economic illiteracy which, despite its good intentions, leads to the creation of less housing, raises prices, and increases urban blight. You can just imagine the stampede of private landlords out of the City if this was introduced – and in Brighton & Hove, which has one of the largest private rented sectors in the country, it would be disastrous for families and individuals who rely upon this type of housing.

In their motion, the Greens claimed that rents in the private sector have gone up so much in recent months that it is effectively pricing tenants out of the market. But what they don’t mention is that for most of 2008 and 2009, rental prices for 2 and 3 bedroom properties fell considerably due to the recession. In addition, if you look at the wider trend since 2001, rent rises have been on average lower than inflation over the same period.

It is also worth pointing out that for private tenants who claim housing benefit (or Local Housing Allowance as it is now called), it is the independent rent assessor who determines the level of benefit they can receive. The Government’s proposed reforms to housing benefit (much criticised by the Greens and Labour) – to effectively cap how much tenants can receive – are partly designed to bear down on private sector rent levels. This is because there is plenty of evidence to suggest that landlords push up their rents for housing benefit tenants because they know it will be covered by the public purse.

I am also slightly puzzled at the Labour Party’s support for the motion. For it was back in 2008 that the then Labour Government commissioned a review into the private rented sector – the ‘Rugg Review’. At no stage did this review consider that capping private sector rents would be advantageous. In fact, they identified the 1988 Housing Act, which lifted rent controls, as one of the main factors in the huge increase in supply of private sector rented properties over recent years. I don’t recall the Labour Group at the time making any representations on rent capping so it is a bit opportunist for them now to be jumping on the bandwagon!

Secondly, I asked our representative on the Sussex Police Authority – Green Party councillor Ben Duncan – what representations he had made on behalf of the residents of the City about squatters and van dwellers, issues which I know cause considerable concern and anger in our communities. His answer was very telling – he said that the Police put too many resources into dealing with these problems and that they should concentrate on other ‘priorities’. In other words, the Green’s position, were they ever to take control of the Council, would be to effectively turn a blind eye to these unlawful activities. Not for the first time (here and here) they have demonstrated a worrying contempt for the basic principles of law and order

Clarity on the Council’s role in Pride

I am aware that posters are appearing in various venues across the City quoting me as saying that I will somehow adjudicate between rival bids to run the Pride Festival for 2011. I want to be quite clear about this – it is not the Council’s role to judge between competing bids or to take sides in any way. I shall be facilitating a cross-party meeting of stakeholders to try and resolve differences and I am more than happy to help in any way to ensure Pride goes ahead. But I reiterate, this is a community event and it is ultimately for the community to decide how their event should run. Just for complete clarity, below is the text of the letter I recently had published in the Argus and GScene:

“The emergence of an alternative bid for Pride has led sectors of the LGBT community to pressure Brighton and Hove City Council to “take a decision” in regard to next year’s event. I feel I need to clear up exactly what the council’s role in any event would be.

Pride is a community celebration, run by a charitable organisation and benefits the entire city. It has never been a council-run event and I think it should remain that way. This means we will not make any decision between competing ideas. As with any proposed event, the council merely considers issues such as licensing health and safety, planning and similar technical issues on a case-by-case basis.

In this case, the council’s role is also to unlock the potential for joint working between the various groups who have mutual interests. Pride is the biggest event in the social calendar and brings more business into the city than any similar occasion, as well as giving Brighton and Hove a global platform. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for the LGBT community to come together and celebrate.

For the sustained future of the event, the reputation of the city and the cohesion of the LGBT community, I would urge all parties to work together. There remains enough experience and spirit amongst the LGBT community to enable this and to this end I am happy to broker a meeting of interested parties, including opposition councillors and officers, to identify a way forward.”

Bright Start Nursery

Below is the text of a statement I made at yesterday’s Full Council meeting on the future of the Bright Start nursery:

Mr Mayor, with your permission I would like to make a brief statement which I believe Council will want to hear before we start the debate proper on Bright Start.

I have listened very carefully today to the many questions on this from parents and staff at the nursery and I have received a large number of representations over the last few weeks asking me to keep the nursery open.

Mr Mayor, we launched this consultation on the future of Bright Start because we didn’t feel that it was justifiable to keep subsidising the nursery to the extent that the tax payer has been doing over the years. This is the only nursery in the City which receives such a subsidy and we don’t feel that it is a fair or sustainable situation. In particular, it is not fair on the vast majority of parents whose children attend nurseries which aren’t subsidised, nor is it fair on the council tax payers who have been funding the subsidy.

However, we have always been very clear, and my colleague Cllr. Vanessa Brown has stated this on many occasions, that no decision has yet been made and that we were open to any suggestions on the future of the nursery.

Colleagues will be aware that the  Localism Bill, which was introduced in Parliament on Monday, contains provisions to enable this to happen through measures such as the ‘Community Right to Challenge’ and the ‘Community Right to Buy’. In my view, these are hugely welcome measures and really open up enormous opportunities for local communities to become more involved in the running of local services and assets which are of value to them. Mr Mayor, this represents a refreshing and long-overdue shift from the top-down, highly centralised control of public services which has become entrenched over the last decade or so.

So, what I would like to do to today Mr Mayor, in the spirit of the new Localism Bill, is to formally propose, for consultation and consideration, Bright Start as a community asset to a consortium of parents, staff or other interested local parties. I know that a substantial business-case has already been put forward by one parent and I would hope that others may come forward and engage constructively with the Council about this opportunity of taking Bright Start forward.

I have been advised by officers that in order to achieve this lawfully and safely at this stage we should extend the consultation period, which has just finished, to enable detailed proposals to be worked up. As part of this, we will issue a further consultation document in the New Year which will lay out the financial and legal implications for anyone wishing to establish a community nursery.

For the avoidance of doubt, I would like to make it absolutely clear that no decision has been made about the future of Bright Start and we have not ruled out any options. We are proposing to extend the consultation, not to abandon it. At the conclusion of the extended consultation, we will take into account all representations received and approach the issue fairly and with an open mind.

Therefore, Mr Mayor, today we shall be abstaining on the various proposals and amendments before us, as to express an opinion at this stage would pre-empt anything which might emerges from the extended consultation.

Mr Mayor, I can completely understand the strong feelings that have been expressed around Bright Start – after all, there is nothing more important than ones children. This is a genuine offer we are putting on the table today and I hope that it is taken in the spirit in which it is intended.

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December 2010