Thursday, 10 March 2016

Why the government's new housing bill could be disastrous for struggling communities, And older people. And people with disabilities.

Passing through the House of Lords at the moment is a housing bill which will have huge ramifications for social housing across the country. And it could spell the end of struggling rural communities in places like Cornwall.

The Bill does two key things. First, it gives Housing Association tenants the right to buy. I disagree with this, but I accept that it was put forward in the Conservative manifesto, so let's move on.

Housing Associations, being private businesses, cannot be forced to give a discount on right to buy without some form of compensation. So the government has decided to encourage local authorities to sell 'high value council houses'. Part of the income from these sales will be given to the government in the form of a charge and then passed on to the Housing Associations as compensation. The remainder will be used to reinvest in council housing stock.

A mooted plan to force (rather than encourage) the sale of high value properties has now been backed away from and councils have the option of keeping them but finding the money for the charge from other resources. It is unrealistic to expect councils to divert money away from caring for the most vulnerable to pay this charge, so the encouragement is compulsion in reality.

To be Cornwall specific - the bulk of council housing is not high value. But those council houses in the village communities around the coast which have been blighted by second homes most definitely are high value. Their value - compared to the regional average for that number of bedrooms - is much greater.

So Cornwall will be forced to sell off the council houses in St Mawes, Port Isaac and Polperro - all of which are communities which need those families to stay in order to survive. They will be sold on the open market and be lost as social housing. The council can reinvest in building new homes - in fact it will be a requirement that they do so, but if they do so in St Mawes, Port Isaac or Polperro then those homes will immediately become high value council homes and have to be sold off. So the only option is to build these new homes in Bodmin, Redruth and other towns along the A30 where they will not be at immediate risk.

The other categories of high value council houses are bungalows and specially adapted properties provided for older people. These tend to be worth far more than the average price for bog standard flats and houses with similar numbers of bedrooms. So they are at risk of having to be sold off. Despite the fact that there is an increasing need for them within the social rented sector. If they have to be sold then councils will have to spend lots more adapting and equipping other council houses and housing association properties. And adapting properties takes time so older people and people with disabilities are going to have to wait for the help that they need in order to live properly.

So that's the problem. Some of Cornwall's communities are struggling and this particular measure will put them further at risk.

I’ve talked to a friend who works in the sector who says that this whole bill is like nailing jelly to a wall. The government is refusing to give vital details of how the scheme will work until after Royal Assent has been granted (something confirmed by Lib Dem peer Olly Grender today). The details will then come in the form of regulation and ministerial pronouncement without the chance for full scrutiny. So what is a high value council house? I’ve made a guess based on the limited information given by ministers, but it could all change.

For councils like Cornwall this matters hugely. The authority is looking to invest in new council housing. That’s a great thing to be doing. But it could be a colossal waste of time if the properties it builds just have to be sold off again.

UPDATE - Lib Dem peer Cathy Bakewell has set out what the party is seeking to change in the Bill here.

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