Cllr Matthew Laban, the Cabinet Member for Housing and Community Safety on Conservative run Enfield Council says a localist response to housing and homelessness demands better use of private sector accommodation
Like many Conservative councillors, I am all too aware of the housing crisis that faces the country. Housing has been one of the great failures of the Labour government. They have overseen a doubling in housing waiting lists, an unsustainable housing boom followed by an appalling bust and their only solution to the crisis is to impose house building targets upon local authorities that almost guarantee the destruction of the Greenbelt.
Across the country there are young people unable to get their first foot on the housing ladder, in areas like mine in Enfield, there are thousands of tenants on waiting lists that are twice as long now as when Labour came to power. Little wonder that many councils struggle to tackle the scourge of homelessness.
Homelessness is perceived as an inner city problem but is a suburban problem too. We don’t have the same problems of street sleeping but there is a substantial problem of ‘hidden homelessness’ which we deal with through temporary accommodation and housing for asylum seekers.
We all know that we need to create more homes. My council in Enfield is working to ensure we do this, for example by working with Boris Johnson to bring derelict properties on London’s North Circular Road (A406) back into use.
In London, Boris has promised 50,000 new homes. Similarly, the national housing debate centres around the number of homes that can be delivered (Gordon Brown promised three million remember?). But whilst the focus of the housing debate is, perhaps inevitably, on the delivery of new homes, we also need to look at other, more immediate ways of tacking the housing crisis.
One much talked about example is to make better use of empty homes but it will also be critical to make better use of the private housing stock to tackle homelessness.
The current Housing Act puts a duty on local authorities to provide emergency housing. But it prevents them from using private tenancies or other forms of appropriate housing in order to discharge this duty – even when this is the most practicable, cost effective option available to councils.
A localist response to the housing crisis would remove this anomaly and allow those councils that wished to make better use of the private housing market, reducing the demand to build new ‘hostel type’ accommodation expressly for emergency housing purposes.
Those homeless people whose councils are able to ensure that they are adequately housed within the private sector should then no longer be defined as homeless. This would break the link between homelessness and access to social housing. Helping to ensure that social housing is more than a last resort for the most desperate cases will have the same effect that to Right to Buy had of helping to ensure that council estates are mixed communities that we strive for.
Similarly, Government funding streams favour expenditure on capital projects. A rebalancing towards revenue funding would open the private sector housing market to meet housing need and could offer real value for money for the tax payer.
The Mayor of London is already insisting that we need to improve the space standards of new build properties in the private sector and it is likely that such a move would need to be accompanied by improved regulation of the private sector to drive up the operating standards of private landlords and letting agents.
Last year’s Rugg Review, commissioned by the Department of Communities and Local Government, concluded that regulation of private sector housing would cost a total of up to £2.5 billion; not a bill likely to be tolerated by George Osborne as he deals with the record national debt that Labour has saddled the country with. Instead, I would propose an alternative system of registration, whereby landlords put forward
their properties for inspection by the local authority, and which can then become eligible to provide temporary accommodation. These alternatives should be given urgent consideration by an incoming Conservative government.
In 1979, the “Right to Buy” policy provided Mrs Thatcher with one of her most well known and most popular policies. The crisis we face is at least as severe as it was then and we need to be clear that housing policy needs urgent reform. By changing the way councils can access and use vacant private accommodation in their areas more effectively and strengthening and streamlining local authority powers to quickly bring back empty properties into use we will be able to reducing pressure on existing limited social housing stock and free up homes for thousands on waiting lists.