Cllr Holly Whitbread is the Cabinet Member for Housing and Community Services on Epping Forest District Council. She stood as a Parliamentary Candidate in Hull North in the 2019 General Election.
For many years, council house building has been out of vogue. However, to tackle the national housing crisis, local authorities must accept that they have an important role to play in delivering quality affordable housing for the communities they serve.
Modern council house delivery programmes should be breaking the mould. Moving away from stereotypical, outdated, local authority models and delivering homes which fit for the 21st century. The design of new council homes should be enhancing their surroundings whilst the terms and conditions of tenancy should reflect the housing requirements of the local area.
Epping Forest District Council have been going against the national trend in respect to Council Housing. Unlike many councils we still retain our own housing stock – with 6,500 properties across the District and we are working to bolster our stock by building high quality new affordable homes of mixed tenure.
In Epping Forest, local people are always put first: to be eligible for a council house you must have lived in the district for at least seven years before having a right to be placed on the waiting list. The benefit of this policy is that it does not falsely raise expectations, as was the case in the past. Those on our list have a realistic opportunity of eventually receiving a council home.
I am proud to have been leading on our delivery programme for the past two years. We are on course to deliver more than 500 new council homes for Epping Forest residents. We are adopting an innovative approach to ensure our housing stock meets the needs of the local population.
At the very heart is a desire to enhance place. The COVID-19 Pandemic has made us realise the importance of the space we call home and the environment around us. New developments are ‘community-led’ with the voices of residents shaping schemes. The council has worked with local stakeholders to iron out any issues in the early stages and ultimately deliver the best possible scheme for the area.
Effective partnership working should be at the heart of contemporary council house delivery. Councils should be seeking opportunities to collaborate with local charities, organisations, and private sector partners to optimise the affordable housing offer and benefit the wider community. For example, at present in Epping Forest, we are working with a church to deliver a community hall and several affordable units for local key workers. This exciting scheme was initiated at member level when I had an informal chat with representatives of a church in my ward around a year ago; this concept is now moving quickly towards a reality. The housing team continues to seek out further opportunities to maximise our stock and broaden our local housing offer.
This Conservative Government have supported innovative councils like Epping Forest by providing funding opportunities. Indeed, we have been awarded “investment partner status” by Homes England which means the council can apply for grants to support our council housing building programme across our District.
One considerable challenge for Councils is the effect of ‘Right to Buy’ on the housing stock. I have always been an advocate of the principle of ‘Right to Buy’ which continues to play a vital role in promoting social mobility. However, whilst it is important that the principle of the policy continues, to give council tenants the opportunity to have a stake in their property, I believe that the policy should be modified to meet the challenges which councils face today and reflect the modern housing market.
On a scheme-by-scheme basis, councils can look at applying different types of tenancies. In the new development in my ward, which I refer to above, tenants do not have ‘Right to Buy’ rights but they can opt in to ‘Shared Ownership.’ Therefore, Councils can begin to protect their stock whilst enabling opportunites for homeownership through different types of tenancy.
Nationally, I would suggest that the Government should consider giving ‘Right to Buy’ a makeover to address the challenges it poses to council stock whilst still promoting homeownership. I would propose a ‘Right to Shared Ownership’ for people who enter new tenancies with local authorities. This would allow, after a specified period of tenancy, for tenants to ‘buy-in’ to their property via a shared ownership scheme, as adopted by many housing associations.
This policy would mean that tenants would have a stake in their property, giving them a foot on the housing ladder, whilst enabling councils to retain their stock and generate income to develop new council properties. This model may be more attainable to many tenants, as it caters for different budgets and provides an opportunity for those for whom full mortgages may currently be out of reach.
Within this proposed model, I would advocate for the opportunity for staircasing over a significant period of tenancy – eventually enabling full ownership, with councils having the first refusal on buying properties back.
This proposed evolution of Right to Buy would follow on well from the good work this Government his already doing around shared ownership. Policies introduced by the Ministry for Housing, Community and Local Government in recent months will enable more people to have a stake in their home, who may not have had this opportunity otherwise. From reducing the minimum share, you can buy into a property from 25 per cent to ten per cent, allowing people to buy additional shares in their home in one per cent instalments with reduced fees.
In the coming years, I believe councils should play their role in delivering affordable housing for their local communities. Councils should be bold and imaginative, as we are in Epping Forest, and shape their housing stock to meet modern needs. Nationally, the time has come to revamp ‘Right to Buy’ and pursue a model which promotes social mobility, whilst preserving much-needed affordable council housing stock.