Tonbridge & Malling Green Party calls for radical rethink on housing policy

16 January 2017

Mark Hood, deputy chair of Tonbridge & Malling Green Party sets out a vision for a new approach to housing policy.

"Housing has become a national obsession, our screens are full of property programmes and half the pages of local newspapers are dedicated to estate agencies. However for many local people the dream of home ownership is just that. The real issue is providing enough homes to go round.

TMBC’s needs to find 13,460 new homes between 2011 and 2031 and there is a fine balance to be made to ensure a balance between supplying the homes to match local need and protecting the beautiful countryside from creeping urbanisation.

One particular issue is land-banking. Developers are granted planning permission on brownfield land but leave it undeveloped, preferring to build in virgin countryside which is considerably cheaper to build on. We have responded to the recent consultation on the Local Plan and the Green Party will continue to monitor the situation.

The problem arises when we examine what is actually being provided - generally the new builds are either flats or luxury detached family homes. In both cases the vast majority of people snapping up new property are people leaving London for a life in the country, and who wouldn’t want to live in Tonbridge and Malling!

You will have noticed the monolithic blocks of flats emerging around our town centres. They are designed for newly arrived commuters. The issue is that there are few properties for these residents to move into once they want to start families. The problem this throws up is that these people will move on if they cannot find what they want locally. This leads to a transient population which fails to put down roots and become fully part of their community.

At the other end of the scale there needs to be a supply of properties for our older citizens to downsize to - so we need to be thinking about a whole range of property types.

The problem the influx of residents from outside the borough creates is that there is very little being built to house people on modest incomes. Recent changes in government policy have made the situation even worse. The Tories pretend to be helping hard pressed people to get a foot on the housing ladder, in fact they are shutting millions out of any kind of housing. The changes they introduced in the Housing Bill include;

Help to Buy, this scheme allows first time buyers under the age of 40 to get a 20% discount on their home, so far so good. The real issue here is that finding 80% of the value of a property in the Southeast is impossible for most couples on average earnings.

The real scandal is that there is no upper earnings cap. Anyone, irrespective of their personal wealth, qualifies for a huge discount. The buyers do not need to live in the property - they can rent it out and are free to cash in after five years and sell on at a profit. Shelter said help to buy would "primarily help those on very high salaries or couples without children, but [it is] not a good replacement for other forms of affordable housing and will not help the majority of people on average wages struggling to get an affordable, decent home."

The chief executive of Shelter, Campbell Robb, said: "You don't solve an affordability crisis by getting rid of the few affordable homes we're building, yet that's exactly what this policy will do … this confirms our fears that Starter Homes costing up to £450,000 will be built at the expense of the genuinely affordable homes this country desperately needs."

Shared Ownership, this is a way for people who are desperate to have a home of their own to buy a proportion of their home and to rent the balance from a Housing Association. The properties involved are often purpose built as concessions achieved through the planning procedure. This does help local people stay in their hometowns. All too often our local authorities do not enforce strict ratios to deliver the maximum amount of these properties to those that need them. In areas such as ours even these properties are beyond the reach of those on low incomes.

Right to Buy, this scheme has just been extended to Housing Associations who are compelled to sell their much needed housing stock to tenants. There was a pledge to replace these properties on a one to one ratio which was abandoned after the first year. Now housing stocks will recede just as demand skyrockets. The drawback is that these properties are the ones in greatest demand from people on low incomes and they are becoming increasingly scarce. In 2014/15 2,000 new units of social housing were built but 12,000 were lost to right to buy.

Polling for the National Housing Federation suggests just 16% of voters believe the right to buy for housing association tenants “would be the most useful way of tackling the affordability crisis”; just 27% thought it “would be a good use of taxpayer money” and only 35% believed they should have “the right to buy their home at a government-funded discount of 30%”. We certainly understand why tenants would want take advantage of the scheme, we just don’t think it is sustainable.

As the National Housing Federation point out, housing association tenants “are people already living in good secure homes on some of the country’s cheapest rents … To use public assets to gift over £100,000 to someone already living in a good quality home is deeply unfair.” The privately renting neighbours of housing association residents, forced to spend years paying far higher rents, will wonder why they are not granted the same choice. Why indeed don’t the Conservatives give private tenants a discount to buy their homes? Ah, but that would of course provoke incandescent rage among the private landlords sitting on the government benches.

So what is the problem? The funding for these schemes has been taken from commitments to build social housing to rent - basically what we used to call council houses. These properties are in massive demand as waiting lists are ever increasing. In 2015 there were 1,200 families in Tonbridge and Malling waiting to be homed. The Tories have no interest in filling the gap, nationally only 950 of these homes were built last year.

The dilemma facing hundreds of our families is whether to move away from friends and family to find housing or being put in temporary accommodation while waiting for a property to become available. Currently temporary accommodation is costing us £3bn a year.

Across Kent there were 1,120 eligible applications for housing assistance in April, May and June 2016 alone, a 12% increase on the previous year as private rents spiral as landlords cash in on affluent Londoners fleeing the capital in search of a better lifestyle.

The spin given by the government is that they are the party of home ownership, in fact the opposite is true. The number of families living in the private rented sector has increased by 2.5 million and there are 250,000 fewer homeowners now than in 2010. The current £1.25bn annual grant for social housing saves the Treasury £4.5bn pa in housing benefit payments. Rents from the 11 million tenants with private landlords are costing £9.3bn in housing benefit.

Put simply, social rented housing saves the country a fortune and diverting funding to Help to Buy and Right to Buy makes no sense at all.

Another myth is that it is generally a great idea to allow ordinary people to get a chance to own a house they could normally not afford. Consider this, there are  five million people waiting for a council home in 2016, and a third of ex council houses are now in the hands of private landlords. The family of Conservative Ian Gow, who helped Thatcher push through the sale of council homes, now own swathes of these properties. The private rented sector now homes one in six households.

Yes that’s right, the state is paying housing benefit to allow tenants to live in houses that it once owned at far higher rents. They are now owned by the people who sold them off in the first place and the people who really need the houses are in temporary accommodation. The only people not getting paid anymore are local councils.

The taxpayer pays £1,000 more each year for families renting privately instead of renting in the social housing sector. This translates to £2.2bn being handed over to private landlords a year or £15.6bn in the past seven years which could have been spent building 50,000 new homes each year. The average household in England spends 29% of their monthly income on housing costs, rising to a staggering 43% for private renters, so getting as many renters in the public sector is in everyone’s interests.

The Answer? The simplest solution is to build thousands of new social housing units. But where is the money going to come from I hear you cry? Our local authorities currently have investments in a whole range of unstable or unethical areas, from fossil fuels to tobacco companies. We urge them to turn away from the dangers of fluctuating markets and invest in building these properties now. The cost of social housing is recouped in 30 years and then you have an asset with a guaranteed income.

In the meantime we want the government to regulate the private rental sector. And we are not alone, according to a BBC survey. 76% want the government to regulate the terms of lettings, 69% want to limit the amount private landlords can increase rent each time a contract is renewed. 74% want maximum caps to be set on private rents and 63% want the government to increase the standard minimum letting period from six to twelve months. Evictions are on the increase and we need to protect those in the private sector now.

It is time to grasp the nettle and build a housing policy designed for need rather than greed."