Observer column: 17 November 2017
Last month, Hastings Council set up a housing company to acquire and build housing. The company will be wholly-owned by the council, and its directors will be council officers, and one councillor. Its policies and constitution will be determined by Hastings Council, but the board of directors will make decisions on what properties it should buy or develop.
Hastings Council has no 'council housing'. The council's housing stock (around 3,000 properties) was transferred to a newly-established housing association called 1066 Homes, which was then absorbed by other, bigger housing associations, and is now part of the national Optivo housing association. So all social housing in Hastings is run by Optivo or other housing associations.
The new housing company does not mean Hastings Council will once again begin to provide council housing - it will technically be private rented housing, but owned by the council-owned company. The council will borrow money from the Public Works Loan Board and lend it to the company at commercial rates to acquire and build housing. Tenancies the council lets through the new housing company will be shorthold tenancies, because those are the only tenancies that can legally be used - secure tenancies of the type used for council housing can only be used for 'conventional' council housing and housing associations.
As well as generating income for the council to supplement cuts in government grants, this new company will allow the council to intervene in the local housing market, making sure that good-quality properties at a reasonable rent are available at a time when gentrification in some parts of town is reducing the number of private rented homes. The council will also be buying houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). These get a bad press as they're often badly managed. But the term 'HMO' applies to any house where facilities are shared by people who are not related or in a relationship, so applies to all flat and house shares of the kind that most young people move to when they leave home. Hastings Council has a licensing scheme in place to make sure these properties are as safe as they can be - worryingly, 90% of the HMOs inspected for this scheme failed basic fire safety requirements. So by acquiring some of the larger HMOs, the quality and safety of this type of accommodation can be guaranteed.
The council housing company board has now met once, and agreed to purchase three properties, including one HMO. They'll be buying many more, but this won't solve the housing crisis in Hastings. At the moment, the government's only solution to the housing crisis seems to be to remove restrictions on developers - allowing office blocks to be converted into housing without planning permission for example, resulting in flats with poor layouts and tiny rooms, because they don't have to comply with standards in the local plan. Their latest proposal is to allow developers to extend housing upwards to the height of the tallest tree or building in the neighbourhood, without permission. But all these relaxations in planning rules achieve is bigger profits for developers. What's needed is a properly planned, properly funded programme to provide social rented and affordable housing.
So while we will use the new housing company as far as we can to provide decent, fair-rented accommodation, it can't on its own solve the problem. A big change in government policy is needed.
Council Leader's column