Observer column: 02 December 2016
We Need To Build A Better Future
In the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, there were some glimmers of good news on housing. The news that letting agent fees for tenants are being abolished is welcome. This was an unfair system whereby both landlords and tenants were being charged for the same thing. But there was little else to benefit people who can't find adequate housing, especially those in the private rented sector.
Here in Hastings, we have an unusually large private rented sector - around 25%, compared with 15% nationally. So more people in Hastings are living with insecure private tenancies, without the security of housing association tenants, or owner occupiers. But while many private landlords are responsible and do offer good quality housing, there are many that don't. Insecurity, rogue landlords and escalating rents continue to be a problem. Fixed term shorthold tenancies mean that tenants are constantly thinking about how long it will be before they have to move again - especially difficult for families with children in local schools.
Other announcements in the Autumn Statement won't help. The extension of the Right to Buy for housing association tenants means that more and more properties are lost to the social rented sector, and there are nowhere near enough social rented properties to meet demands. In practice, only households with health, disability or other special needs are likely to even get onto the waiting list. And the Right to Buy also makes it much harder for housing associations to build new housing. They have to borrow money to build new homes, and pay off the loans from the rent income. If they have to sell off homes at a big discount just after they've been built, then the sums don't add up - housing associations are left with loans they can't repay.
Hastings Council has introduced the Selective Licensing Scheme, to make sure private landlords act responsibly and maintain their properties. That will help to improve private renting, but doesn't prevent the insecurity, and can't control rent levels. We have also set up Initiatives such as the Social Lettings Agency and the Coastal Space Project, to provide more secure social housing at genuinely affordable rents. These help a little, but it's nowhere near enough, and are limited as council budgets get cut back further each year.
The government did announce £1.4bn to encourage house building across all sectors, but Right to Buy still make it difficult to build social rented housing. The government's emphasis here is on 'starter homes', housing for sale at 80% of the average market value. For Hastings, that's around £170,000 - not at all affordable for a majority of people in a town where average (median) incomes are less than £20,000 a year.
The entire country is in the grip of a housing crisis, with market forces not delivering homes that younger people can afford, not providing the social housing that's needed, and forcing everyone into an insecure and increasingly expensive private rented sector. And there are few places where that's more evident than in Hastings. Providing bits and pieces of money to 'incentivise' the private sector to build genuinely affordable housing won't work. What's needed is a home-building programme on the scale of the 1945 Labour government, which built a million new council homes in six years. Without that sort of large-scale government intervention, homelessness, insecurity, escalating rents and poor housing conditions can only get worse.
Council Leader's column