Archive for the 'Housing' Category

Major new investment in Brighton & Hove council homes

I was delighted to be able to announce at last week’s Cabinet meeting that Brighton & Hove City Council and Brighton & Hove Seaside Community Homes (BHSCH) have agreed a funding facility of £30 million from Santander to invest in the council’s housing.

BHSCH, a registered charity, will use the money to bring 499 council homes up to 21st century standards.  We are transferring the homes to BHSCH on a long lease so are not giving up the freehold and are hoping that work will start on the homes in the late spring.  Homes in disrepair and long-term empty homes and flats, which have not received investment, will be prioritised.  Larger houses used as temporary accommodation will be converted into modern flats and all of the homes will be let at affordable rents to families and others in housing need in the city.

This is something which I have been personally driving forward for some time now and I am delighted that the deadline which I set for the end of the financial year 2010/11 has been met. When we took over the Administration of the Council in 2007 we were left with, frankly, a mess by the previous Labour Administration. Their push for stock transfer had been resoundingly rejected by the tenants and there was no Plan B in place to plug the funding gap to meet the Decent Homes Standard.

Since then, we have worked long and hard, in close partnership with the tenants and leaseholders, to bridge that investment gap. Firstly,we let a  new long-term maintenance contract which will save approximately £150 million over 30 years and now we have successfully established BHSCH to deliver further investment.

I believe that housing has been one of the major success stories of the last 4 years and the investment is starting to make a real difference to tenants’ lives. If the Conservatives are re-elected in May it will continue to be one of my top priorities.

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Forget about housing on Saltdean Lido!

Here is the text of a press release which we have just released about the future of Saltdean Lido:

 

Saltdean Lido - copyright Simon Carey and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

 

“Homes will never be built at the Lido” – Council Leader

‘Summit’ on attraction called

A large development of homes will never be built on the site of Saltdean Lido.

That is the strong message from Brighton & Hove council leader Mary Mears.

Councillor Mears is responding to concerns among residents at proposals by the leaseholder to build more than 100 flats on the site.  No formal planning application has ever been made.

Cllr Mears points out that the council is both the freeholder of the site and the local planning authority.  In either role, she says, the council would not allow any development which would damage the historic setting.

Cllr Mears said:  “I want both the leaseholder and residents to forget about the idea of putting significant amounts of housing on this site.  It is a complete non-starter.  The council will never allow it.

“Instead, I am going to call a meeting shortly between the Save Saltdean Lido campaign, the Saltdean Community Association who sublet it, plus experts and lawyers from the council.  The aim would be to see how we can protect the Lido as a listed building and make it a permanently viable attraction.

“The current leaseholder is in dispute with the council over a number of issues.  He needs to understand we will not back any major development plans and he needs to negotiate about the Lido’s future accordingly.”

The government recently awarded the Lido a ‘star’ listing, upgrading it from its existing Grade 2 listed status.

Cllr Mears said:  “The reason we backed that star listing application was to give the building extra protection from the kinds of proposals we were hearing.  As a starred building, English Heritage would also have to approve any development.”

Cllr Mears says she expects invitations to the private meeting with residents’ representatives to be sent out in the next few days.

Officials say that there are various legal complications currently barring progress with the Lido, which they cannot lawfully make public.  Cllr Mears added the authority was however “continually trying to make progress over the issue behind the scenes.”

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

Supported Housing Month in Brighton & Hove

Monday (15th November) marked the beginning of South East Supported Housing Month. I was very happy to offer my support to this initiative last year and am delighted to be able to do so again this year.

A whole range of events are taking place across the City to raise awareness of the value that supported housing brings to communities and the contribution it makes to some of our key priorities as a Council – housing, social care, health, crime, teenage pregnancy, homelessness and alcohol and substance misuse.

The Supporting People programme is the Council’s key source of funding for supporting vulnerable people to stay safe and secure in their homes. In Brighton & Hove it funds 39 local organisations to support about 5,000 vulnerable people across the whole City.

Services range from those that work with young people needing support to develop their independence, through to helping older people to stay healthy and remain in their own homes. There are also Supporting People services for people with mental health or substance misuse support needs – or who are homeless or sleeping rough.

I was pleased to see in the Government’s recent Comprehensive Spending Review that Supporting People funding has been largely protected and will total £6.5 billion nationally over the next 4 years.

Money that we spend on preventative services such as Supporting People is very much ‘spend to save’. Since Supporting People was launched in 2003, we estimate that it has saved tax payers up to £30 million a year by preventing hospital visits, residential care costs and homelessness. Put another way, every pound we have spent has saved £3.24 on other public services.

If you are interested in finding out more about the services the Council offers for vulnerable people please contact our officers – supportingpeople@brighton-hove.gov.uk.

Why I’m in favour of scrapping regional housing targets

Those who are now criticising the new Government’s plans to scrap the current system of top-down regional housing targets in favour of more local ones are missing a very important point – the current system has failed spectacularly to deliver and at the same time has alienated local communities who quite rightly want a say in what gets built in their neighbourhood.

The figures are very telling. The rate of house building since 1997 has dropped by almost 24,000 homes a year – to around 147,000 – compared to the levels under the previous Conservative government. Over the same period of time, house prices have gone through the roof, pricing many people – especially first time buyers – out of the market. Partly as a result of this, the number of people on council housing waiting lists has increased by 50% over this period to around 1.6 million people nationally.

And, because of this top-down, target driven approach, even the houses that have been built have not significantly helped to meet the needs of local communities. For example, the proportion of new homes built since 1997 that are flats has more than trebled. In places such as Brighton & Hove, which has a dire shortage of larger family housing, this trend has been nothing short of disastrous. And with the regional housing targets still in place, this trend has been very difficult for us to reverse.

What the new Government is proposing is a different approach – giving local councils and local communities incentives for building new housing, not imposing central targets and then penalising them for not meeting them. How often have you heard people say that they would be more than happy to have new housing in their communities if the necessary infrastructure – schools, GP surgeries, roads etc. – were in place? Allowing local authorities to keep the council tax receipts from new housing and for this to be spent on benefitting those communities directly affected, should help to achieve that.

Nobody is denying that there is a shortage of good quality housing in Brighton & Hove, as in large parts of the country. Where we differ from the previous Labour Government is how to address this. What I think they failed to recognise is that without local support and buy-in, it is very difficult to get new housing built. Simply saying that you are going to build 3 million new homes and waving a magic wand doesn’t mean that in reality it will happen. I think it is also very unfair to criticise local residents (and the councillors who represent them) as ‘nimbys’ when they are being given precious little say about what happens to the place that they choose to call home.

There is no doubt that it is an incredibly difficult balancing act – providing sufficient land both for business to set up and expand and also to house the workers who will be employed by those businesses. Not to mention protecting our much cherished green spaces and downland. This is especially true in a City such as Brighton & Hove which is severely constrained by the Channel to the south and the Downs to the North. But the point is, we should be able to decide that balance for ourselves, not told what to do by an unelected planning inspector up in London, who has no connection with the City whatsoever.

The top-down target driven approach has failed – it’s time to try something different.

More Labour Scare Tactics – Housing This Time

Labour have been issuing leaflets to tenants in Brighton & Hove which make up all sorts of things about Conservative plans for social housing. I wanted to make it absolutely clear that tenancies will be absolutely guaranteed with the Conservatives.

As we say in our manifesto: ‘We will respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants.’

I know that tenants across Brighton & Hove have great pride in their homes and the neighbourhood in which they live. Conservatives recognise the importance of social housing and the security it provides.

In this election, the Labour Party is issuing leaflets, of which this is just one more example, which are trying to scare people with false claims about our policies and making untrue allegations.

This is the reality about our respective housing policies:

  • Conservatives, both locally and nationally, will not increase rents to market levels, end secure tenancies or ‘slash’ housing benefit. Indeed, it has been the Government’s policy over the last 10 years or so to raise council house rents to bring them in line with the Housing Associations.
  • It was the former Council Leader – Simon Burgess – who tried to force through a stock transfer of your council housing. Following the overwhelming rejection of his plans by tenants in 2007, the Conservative Council has worked extremely hard to secure additional investment in your homes and will always support the wishes of tenants.
  • Labour claim that their proposals to reform the council housing finance system will leave councils better off as they will be allowed to keep all rents and sales income. What they are not telling you is that we will also be saddled with a portion of the £25 billion of historic debt in the system.
  • The rate of house building since Labour has been in office has dropped by almost 24,000 homes a year – to around 147,000 – compared to the levels under the previous Conservative government. In addition, an average of 18,430 social rented homes a year has been built under this Government, compared with 40,538 a year under the last Government.
  • The number of households on local authority waiting lists in England has risen from a million when Labour took over in 1997 to 1.8 million – this equates to more than 4.5 million people.

As they did with the lies about benefits for pensioners, Labour is resorting to scaring residents to get votes. These tactics are disgraceful and should have no place in British politics. It is disappointing that Gordon Brown, after 13 years, doesn’t have a positive message about himself or his record on housing.

Van dwellers – setting the record straight

Some of the reports that have come out following my decision to raise this matter at a Council meeting recently have been simply ridiculous. We are not targetting anyone, being hostile to a minority or demonising people. We are simply seeking to address an issue that has been raised.

I approach the issue of van dwellers from the standpoint that the law says that living on the highway is illegal. I also have serious concerns about the health and safety needs of van dwellers and nearby residents, the needs of children living in vans and the fact that there have been reports from residents of insanitary behaviour from some van dwellers. The original Notice of Motion I tabled with the support of my Conservative colleagues called for a new bye-law to be introduced and, after discussions with other councillors, I announced a working group, comprising all Parties on the Council and hopefully some outside agencies, such as the police.

There has also been some misinformation flying around about our housing responsibilities as a Council. Van dwellers have just the same rights as any other person to apply to the council as homeless or indeed to seek housing advice from our excellent housing options team. They will be assessed in exactly the same manner and if, genuinely found to be in priority need, they will be offered accommodation. In addition, all vans are visited by council officers to assess the health and welfare needs of the occupants. But we are under no obligation to offer a site where they can park their vans.

Many people objected to my raising this issue but as politicians it is our responsibility to respond to concerns raised by residents. If I had swept this under the carpet we would not have the cross-Party working group and nor would we be starting work towards managing the issue of van dwellers. 

I want to thank everyone who has written to me supporting the stance I have taken. Our work continues.


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