By Simon Warley / Homes for EveryoneHousing / / 0 Comments

The housing crisis in this country is also a health crisis.

Last week in Parliament M.P.s debated the health costs of poor housing. Given recent reports in the Gazette about poor housing conditions in Canterbury this was particularly relevant to this district.

Research by the Building Research Establishment in March 2015 estimated that poor housing costs the NHS at least £1.4 billion a year. The University of Birmingham’s housing and communities research group state that 1 in 5 homes in the UK do not meet the decent home standard. Bad housing causes and exacerbates health problems. Being forced to live in cold, damp conditions, significantly increases the risk of experiencing cardio-vascular, respiratory and rheumatoid conditions and is very harmful to people with arthritis.

Poor housing is an ever-increasing national problem and must be addressed urgently. In July 2018 Canterbury City Council published a report entitled “Housing and Homelessness”. It highlighted that there are more than 2500 families on the Authority’s housing needs register-that’s more than 2500 families who don’t have a suitable place to live, many of whom are living in cramped and unsuitable “temporary” accommodation. The term “temporary” is misleading as many families are forced to live in such accommodation for long periods of time because there are no suitable council properties available and because they cannot afford to rent in the private sector.

The problem is affordability and lack of council housing. The report stated that the cost of housing to buy or rent privately in the Canterbury district is 13 times higher than average local wages. This forces many people to live in cramped, unsuitable conditions because that is all they can afford. The Council, like many others in this country, has built very few council homes in the last decade. Residents are forced into the expensive private rented sector which is largely unregulated and where tenants have few rights and very low security of tenure. Many tenants are frightened to complain of poor conditions for fear they will be evicted at short notice. The cost of rents forces many people to spend less money on both food and heating, causing damage to their health.

In the 1945-51 Labour Government Aneurin Bevan was Minister for Housing and Health. That Government recognised the link between good housing and good health. At the same time as it founded the NHS, that Government introduced a programme of slum clearances and council house building. Bevan insisted on council housing of good, minimum standards where everyone could live in spacious, dry homes.

This country needs such a programme again today. The private house-building sector cannot solve the housing crisis and unless bold new policies are implemented, all the problems of poor housing that I have referred to will persist.

The following policies need to be implemented;

  1. An end to the right to buy which has merely led to large numbers of former council houses being acquired by private landlords.
  2. The imposition of local rent controls in the private rented sector, so that rents are linked to average local wages.
  3. The regulation of the private rented sector to ensure that minimum standards are complied with.
  4. A sustained and widespread programme of council house building over the next two decades. Local Councils must be both empowered and instructed to build these homes with specific targets for each local authority.
By Chris Cornell / HousingServices / / 0 Comments

Last week Councillor Alan Baldock proposed changes to next years council budget which would improve the quality and number of affordable houses locally. His calls for a new type of council were roundly ignored by both Lib Dem and Conservative councillors that voted against it. Read his speech in full to understand why fully why we need a change to our local politics.

“We have a different vision for this Council, a vision focused on the everyday lives of our proud residents in Whitstable, Herne Bay, the Villages and our shared City. It is a vision at odds with this Conservative budget, a budget grounded in Conservative ideology.

This budget funds the choices this Conservative administration have made, today we can simply highlight the consequences of those choices to our Council Tax payers and tenants.

Please indulge me – consider the budget decisions you have made over this last four years against an alternative vision.  A vision that puts the lives of residents first and foremost, I offer you three illustrative examples.

You could have chosen a £9M investment in a long-term project to deliver environmentally sound local transport improvements including interchange hubs, desperately needed cycle route improvements or a Council run hopper Bus Company.  All of those would benefit ALL our local residents young and old as well as our businesses and valued tourists – instead you committed more than £9M to a monstrous multi story carpark for the benefit of mainly commuters and in the process gifted residents a crippling debt, congestion and pollution for a generation.

Consider how many urban residents would have benefited from a step change increase in the number of on street EV chargers instead, you chose to focus on installs in car parks. A simple choice you made, one that of course, that lets those city and town centre residents – hoping to go EV they are not going to get any support locally any time soon.

The political choice of Tory austerity has driven a wave of shabbiness over so much of what residents care about, they open their door it’s there, they take the kids to school its always with them.

But it is this administrations’ choice to spend huge sums of money on paving the City Centre – why did you not even consider adjusting that project a little and spending just some of that money to make a start on refurbishing our estates, parks, streets and alleyways?   Is that not a better use of public money – to tangibly improve the everyday lives of our local residents when Tory austerity has eaten the heart from Local Government funding?

You have made the choices – to close your eyes and hope for the trickle-down economic recovery unicorn.  Our residents know that under this administration they are bottom of the pile – no money to improve the lighting in dark alleyways or to re-open and refurbish the Wincheap Park toilets just two things that change the lives of dozens of families – there are countless other examples of course – every one of us here knows that.

So you have now had a tiny glimpse of a different vision – our vision focuses on sharing across our District what little we have to directly benefit first and foremost as many residents as possible – both today and in future.

If you do support this budget, you will at least know in your heart that it does not have to be this way.  You have a choice now – You made choices over the last four years, you can reflect now at leisure on the consequences of those – the ones residents wake up to every day.

I will now set out our brief budget amendment and the background to it.

The legacy, of this administration along with its Conservative predecessors since 2005, is one that will always haunt them – they failed to fix a looming housing crisis while the sun shone. We in the Labour Party cannot and will not turn away from this unacceptable cruelty, a secure decent home is a basic need of every human being – Canterbury District is in a housing crisis – it is failing.  Your oft repeated promise of homes tomorrow is a busted flush .The Conservative failure to build council homes has created today’s perfect storm one that continues to punish the poorest in our society, as it was intended to. It is your legacy that created today’s crowded homes and insecure tenancies that blight children’s lives and made for a sea of tears that breaks my heart.

We believe that our housing crisis will not be solved with speculative purchases at market value, nor buying costly unsuitable ex-student property, instead the emphasis must be on building.  The typical cost of a well-planned and effectively delivered council house is in the order of half the market cost of an existing property purchase – making our stretched HRA money go a lot further, loan repayments more affordable with increased properties for a similar investment. To make building happen it is an uncomfortable truth that at some point promises, plans and pounds must meet.

Our plan puts this Council in the starting blocks for this race to build many more new Council homes by funding a small team, the Affordable Homes Team of two to three people, 100% focused on building Council homes – their role to assess and acquire sites, mostly council owned ones, develop plans and establish viability and seek planning permissions – finally all importantly bring together a wide range of funding options that maximise the available funding opportunities.

This budget amendment will seek to fund the Affordable Homes Team, jointly from the General Fund, nominally covering the acquisition process within the team and from the HRA Capital Budget addressing the detailed planning and finance.The General Fund contribution can be made by taking around £60K from reserves.  It would seem an acceptable use of reserves against an unarguable crisis of need, coupled to the reduced cost of homelessness in the longer term with a successful project outcome.

The contribution from the HRA Capital Fund may at first seem counter intuitive.  We are all aware that EKH are in considerable difficulty and are subject of an eighteen month £240K improvement plan, funded by tenants rent money through the HRA.That Improvement Plan, included within todays budget includes £100K to manage increasing tenant’s debts accrued by the failed Conservative Universal Credit system, but the remainder does seeks to address their poor performance in the delivery of the HRA Capital Program.

To us it seems unwise to put both an Improvement Plan in place, which will inevitable take some time to bed in and at the same time increase proposed spending on Improvement and renewals by around £2M to £6.9M – £2M more than they have ever delivered in recent years.  Better to defer £1M of work in 2019/20, reducing the total to £5.9M – deferred work being carefully prioritised, spread over several budget lines and marked for delivery in the following two years.

The money used now from the HRA account to fund the 18-month improvement program can be used to support the increase borrowing in future years to quickly and reliable deliver the outstanding work – in a hopefully much better managed by then EKH.  This deferral allows a reduction in external borrowing down to £3.5M from £4.5M offering a saving of around £60K on interest payments available now to complete the funding of the Affordable Homes Team at an estimated £120K. Overall, this solution will achieve the urgent funding needed without damaging the precarious state of the HRA accounts.

The Affordable Homes Team, funded from our budget amendment will visibly kick-start the essential council house building program – planning now for a future that at last will offer hope.  A future of rents our most vulnerable families can afford – secure homes where future generations can thrive and be proud of the place they can call home.”