Diary of a Sutton Councillor

Affordable Housing Motion to Full Council 19th January 2015

Monday’s Full Council saw me propose a motion to Council on the subject of Delivering Affordable Housing to Sutton Residents. The motion calls on Central Government to devolve more funding and powers to Local Authorities who show that they are willing to deliver the necessary housing growth. It also highlighted the work that Sutton is already doing to use its existing powers to deliver new homes. The full text of the motion can be read here.

The text of my speech is shown at the end of this post.

Cllr Richard Clifton seconded the motion and spoke powerfully about the increasing gap between rich and poor, the failure of the Conservative’s trickle down ideology, and the shame that in our Western world we are currently seeing reliance on food banks.

Other speakers also talked about the impacts of welfare reform, the basic right to a decent home and the health implications of poor housing. We heard powerful maiden speeches from Cllr Amy Haldane supporting the work to provide temporary accommodation in borough by converting Oakleigh, and from Cllr Manuel Abellan speaking about his experience as a member of ‘Generation Rent’.

I was pleased to hear both Cllrs Hanna Zuchowski and Graham Whitham highlight the failings of government initiatives as exemplified by the extended Permitted Development Rights: a particular bug-bear of mine.

Cllr Muhammad Sadiq provided more details of our ‘ask’ from central government.

I was very pleased to receive support for the motion and the principle from my opposition colleagues too, even if Cllr Crowley tried to divert the debate into being about the Life Centre! However I did understand their questions about a business case and was able to clarify that the new housing development company was in essence a vehicle to enable the council to take up opportunities that may arise and to work more flexibly in partnership with other housing providers, as well as provide housing directly itself. As each opportunity arises a full business case will be worked up which will be presented to the relevant committees for full scrutiny, including by the opposition.

I didn’t get chance in the debate but take the opportunity now to respond to the point about using our own sites before asking the Mayor to release land. The 140 new council houses we are building does just that. The sites are already identified and were noted in previous papers presented to the Strategy & Resources Committee. We also have a formal system to review all council sites that have the potential for disposal that balances the income potential against the benefits of alternative use such as for housing. Some of the sites identified for new council houses came about as a result of this process. Of course other needs and ambitions for the borough need to be taken into account such as maintaining or increasing employment land and stimulating the local economy. The development company also gives us the potential to purchase privately owned sites, should the business case stack up.

The formal questions submitted by Cllr Crowley for response during the debate gave me the opportunity to expand on the work that is embedded within council practices to engage positively with private sector landlords in Sutton to encourage them to offer affordable rents, and the ongoing work to bring empty properties back into use.

Of course it is all very well to talk about what we want to do, but the proof is in delivery, and that is my key concern. We are already on schedule to build around 140 new council homes in the next six years, and our current regeneration schemes are delivering 700 new or improved properties. The new development company gives us the power and the flexibility to seize on new opportunities, and the council is already being proactive in this, so I expect to see some exciting business cases to deliver new housing being prepared in the not too distant future.

My speech proposing the motion:

For many years housing hasn’t featured in any Governments’ manifesto. Whilst property prices were increasing steadily all was thought to be well with the world. Middle class people would sit at dinner parties discussing their increasing property values and houses were seen more as investments than homes. Owning property was a key aspiration and incentives such as right-to-buy encouraged this view.

But this blasé attitude when times were good is the reason we now face a housing crisis. When the bubble burst there was suddenly no incentive for private developers to build, but nor had public money been invested into providing new council housing.

Suddenly house prices are out of reach of the majority, our children look set to still be living with us well into their thirties, while unscrupulous private landlords are cashing in on the increased demand by hiking rents through the roof. The ridiculousness of this situation is that it adds to the budget deficit as more money has to be spent on housing benefit as even an average working family now needs help to pay their rent.

This is illustrated by the fact that 50% of the people on the waiting list for a council property are in work.

And now housing is on every party’s manifesto. Unfortunately the desperate measures taken to try to stimulate housebuilding have failed. They have failed because we have Conservative Ministers that believe that the private sector will provide the solution to everything. Reality shows that this is not the case. We need to have public investment in housing. And as central government is not prepared to do it, we as the local authority will.

This council is investing £30m in building around 140 new council homes over the next six years. We can do this thanks to the devolution of responsibility for managing the housing revenue account. A change that Liberal Democrats and tenants in this very borough campaigned for tirelessly. Ask Cllr Crossby about the Daylight Robbery campaign!

But we have gone further in our ambitions to address the imbalance in the housing market. We have seized on our new localism powers and are establishing a council owned development company. The aim of this company will be to provide new housing across all tenures – private for sale, private for rent and social housing, but all with the key principle that this housing will be at prices local people can afford!

This company gives us the freedom to act independently of government handouts, and to work flexibly with private sector providers to deliver new housing. It has already proved a popular idea as we have been approached by a number of housing providers looking for innovative ways to work together to increase the amount of housing in Sutton. And if we use this company to invest in the private rented sector it means that we can offer longer term tenancies and provide the security that many renters lack.

And by being involved in the development of this housing the council has more control over design and standards, so that we get quality affordable homes for local people, not luxury apartments that only the rich can afford, or substandard boxes in poorly converted buildings.

Interestingly it was Planning Departments that were the first to be blamed for the slow down in housebuilding. Interesting then that for every 2.5 houses with planning permission, only one house has actually been built. That is not due to the planners.

I don’t have time here to talk about all the work this council is doing to ensure we can adequately house Sutton residents. But I do want to mention another way we are seeking to ensure that in Sutton the housing that is built is of a standard that anyone of us would be pleased to live in, and makes a positive contribution to our suburban borough.

We are doing this by working on a new Local Plan. This will ensure that our planning policies encourage new housebuilding, but also places strong requirements that they are of a high quality in terms of design and sustainability, and that new housing is accompanied by the transport, education and health infrastructure it will require. We want our residents to live in pleasant environments that enhance the treasured sense of community we have in Sutton, that allows space for parks and open land, whilst contributing to thriving neighbourhoods and district centres.

And all this is happening because as a local council we are taking matters into own hands, making the most of the devolved powers we have been given to meet the needs and deliver the aspirations of Sutton residents. Central government can only offer one-size fits all, top down solutions. We call for the powers to shape our own destiny, and can show that we can deliver more efficiently and effectively when we have that power.

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January 21, 2015 - Posted by | Committee Meeting | , , , ,

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