This is Swindon Tenants Campaign Group’s submission to Swindon Borough Council’s Housing Strategy consultation.

In March 2013 Swindon Council decided to begin a process of reviewing its housing strategy. In it’s ‘Housing Market Support’ document it said that a draft strategy would be brought back to the Cabinet “at the earliest opportunity in 2013.” It committed to organising a conference as part of this process.

The motion requests a conference be organised to address the issues contained within this report. It is intended that such a conference will form part of the consultation and evidence gathering stage of the Housing Strategy process.”

That at least offered the possibility of an open debate on how to tackle the housing crisis. Swindon Tenants Campaign Group (STCG) put forward a detailed response (“Tackling Swindon’s Housing Crisis”)1 to the ‘Housing Market Support’ document, in expectation of a consultation during 2013. However, we would have to wait 18 months for the document which finally went before the Cabinet meeting on September 10th 2014.

Any expectation of an open discussion has been dashed. The decision to delegate power to the Lead Member to decide what the Housing Strategy is, is grossly undemocratic. How can an individual be given power to decide such an important issue as a town’s Housing Strategy? The use of a Lead Member Decision Note is a quite conscious attempt to avoid a debate and a vote at the full Council meeting. Worse still, it avoids a debate in public where those suffering the consequences of the housing crisis can have their say. (Read on below or download a PDF here stcgresponse )

The Council’s own Housing Advisory Forum (HAF) passed a resolution which said that Housing Strategy should be determined by debate and vote at the full Council rather than by a Lead Member. As has become all too common the opinion of the HAF has been ignored. STCG wrote to the Council Leader calling on the administration to honour its commitment to organise a conference and to suspend the end of the consultation until such time as that conference had taken place.

The ‘consultation’ as carried out shows the administration simply going through the motions rather than having a genuine and open debate about the scale of the crisis and how it can be tackled. It has not even bothered to put the Housing Strategy consultation on the list of current consultations on its website. You cannot even find where to email or send any comments in response.

Swindon’s housing crisis

The document presented to the Cabinet in September 2014 does admit to the scale of the housing crisis that we face locally:

  • each year there are 800 too few “affordable homes” being built

  • 15% of private dwellings in the town have category one hazards in them. It defines these: “A category one hazard is that it may cause death or serious injury.”

  • there are high levels of low-skill, low paid work…these households find it difficult to afford the market rate for housing.”

It also repeats statistics from its 2013 document on the significant numbers of people who cannot afford to buy a house, even the lower quartile (cheapest). However, its policy proposals would not only represent an inadequate response to the crisis, they would actually make it worse. Here we explain why.

Council Housing

The draft document suggests that the Council will “seek to provide” 300 Council homes by 2020. It’s recent bid for funding from the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) was for 100 Council homes over a 3 year period, though this would actually provide only 67 additional homes since the project includes the demolition of 33 existing homes in Sussex Square. From this it follows that the Council is seeking to build another 200 on top of that. Therefore, at best, over 6 years this may provide an additional 267 homes. If there are any other regeneration projects involved this might well include more demolitions. (It’s original proposal for the bid included the demolition of 50 ‘Woolaway’ houses.)

Given the fact that over the last 2 years the Council has lost 107 homes under the new enhanced “right to buy”, building on this scale will almost certainly fail to replace the number of homes we are liable to lose over 6 years under RTB. Indeed the government has launched a new campaign designed to sell off as many as possible. The Council’s ruling group is accepting that it will have a declining number of homes at its disposal.

If the extra 200 homes are to be funded via further bids to the HCA the conditions applied mean that

  • any homes built with HCA grant have to charge “Affordable Rent” (AR), i.e. up to 80% of private market rents;

  • because of the low level of the grant some existing Council homes have to be converted from ‘social rent’ to AR when they become ‘void’ (i.e. the tenant moves or dies).

An estimated 140 will have to be ‘converted’ to help pay for the 100 in the successful bid to the HCA. It follows that the consequences of the first bid are that for an extra 67 homes, we will lose somewhere in the region of 173 ‘social rent’ homes. Other successful bids would mean losing hundreds more homes paying ‘social rent’.

Also to be added to the equation is the fact that the government is operating a ban on Councils building Council homes with Council rents with the receipts they receive from RTB sales.

In supporting, rather than challenging these policies, the Council’s ruling group is agreeing to cut the number of ‘social rent’ homes even further. In supporting AR they are supporting the driving up of the Housing Benefit bill which necessarily follows conversion of ‘social rents’ to AR. The Financial Times recently carried out some research into AR and they discovered that 75% of tenants in AR homes were in receipt of HB (as compared with around 66% for social rent).

Without a policy of building new homes on a much larger scale than they are proposing then the prospects of many people on the Housing List are bleak. Indeed the Council admits that

Households at or close to the threshold (of greatest need) will have to wait a considerable time for affordable housing or not be housed in this way at all.”

Whilst we recognise that building on a large scale would require a change in national government policy and an increase in grant, Swindon could use some of it’s ‘borrowing headroom’ (now £31 million) to borrow money from the Public Works Loans Board. The advantage of this is that we could build Council homes with Council rents, without government conditions imposed on us.

Private Rented Sector

The Council is proposing to carry out a pilot project in Wichelstowe for an “enhanced private rental offer aimed at working households”. However, there is no indication given as to how many units are envisaged in this pilot. All that we are told is that “such provision will be relatively small in the early years compared to the 16,000+ private sector homes already in existence”. Previous documents suggested that the purpose of this scheme was to drive up standards throughout the PRS by competing with existing PRS homes. However, this document admits that this may not happen without further action.

It rejects a licensing system for the PRS as “extreme” suggesting instead “reputational regulation”. This could be by way of offering landlords the opportunity to sign up to “a standards charter” that commits to certain standards of service in their lettings. However, this is similar to the current efforts of the Council which has only attracted 30 landlords to sign up to its Landlord Accreditation scheme. One suggestion they make is along the lines of the National Landlords Association Accreditation Scheme. The NLA describes this scheme as a means of showing that Landlords can “self-regulate”. This is said to be “the advisable route for the Council to take.” However, it is difficult to see how this would be much different to the Council’s current scheme. There will be no pressure on Landlords to sign up to it since they are not competing with each other for tenants. Given the shortage of genuinely affordable homes for rent there will be no shortage of potential tenants. Indeed the document admits that “many private sector tenants have little choice over their housing.”

The document also suggests a web-based feedback site for tenants “to allow the market to operate better through allowing tenants information on prospective landlords akin to the information that landlords can access on prospective tenants through services such as TenantVet”. While this could be a means of exposing bad methods of operation by some landlords, the fact is that so long as its remains, so-to-speak, a sellers rather a buyers market, advantage rests with the landlords because of the acute shortage of genuinely affordable homes for rent. Tenants would be very wary of complaining publicly because the landlord has the ability to kick them out so easily. So any such website would have to ensure complete confidentiality.

Given the size of the PRS it’s our view that the Council can only improve the quality of accommodation if they introduce a registration system which enables them to know where PRS homes are and thus police them in accordance with regulations. In our previous submission STCG proposed that instead of trying to increase the number of PRS homes by its own efforts it should increase the resources available to its Residential Services Team (RST) which is responsible for enforcement of the law in the PRS and dealing with complaints. As we pointed out in ‘Tackling Swindon’s Housing Crisis‘ the RST only had 6.1 full-time equivalent posts, and only 3 of those were Enforcement Officers responsible for carrying out the legal duties of the Council in the PRS.

In November 2013 we wrote to the Lead Member responsible for housing suggesting that rather than looking to build more PRS homes, the Council should give more resources to the RST so it was able to carry out the stated policy of the Council of improving the quality across the PRS. The Lead Member implied that because of “significant budgetary pressure” they could not afford additional resources. To cope with the shortage of money he said “we have developed a flexible workforce able to respond to seasonal and other pressures in work”. Other workers can “if necessary” provide support for the RST during winter months when housing complaints peak”. The Council also, apparently, has officers “with residential enforcement experience” working in such teams as food safety, who can be called upon “should the need arise”. The letter didn’t clarify whether they had been called upon.

The flexible model of resourcing is the only way we can continue to deliver our wide-ranging public protection role.”

In other words the Council expects people to do work which isn’t theirs. However, it was patently obvious that given the growth of the PRS from 5,368 to 14,169 households between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses that three people could not possibly handle the increase in workload. The number of people living in the sector, by the way, nearly tripled in that time from 11,359 to 32,811.

Given that it is estimated that 15% of private sector dwellings in Swindon, more than 11,000, have a serious ‘category one hazard’ the Council’s enforcement role takes on a certain urgency. As we know from a case in Swindon earlier this year, the lack of safety standards can lead to the death of tenants. (See Smoke Alarms and safety in the private rented sector2).

We don’t have a break down of the 11,000 between home owners and PRS homes, but we do know that the Building Research Establishment assessment for Swindon estimates that 25% of private homes are non-decent. Moreover, of the estimated 950 Homes in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) the Council says it does not know the address of an estimated 200 of them. Only 81 of the HMOs are licensed. The Council says that it is in this sector that “some of the worst housing conditions are seen”. Since it does not know the addresses of upwards of 20% of HMOs it seems likely that some of these should be licensed but are not. The Council’s stated policy is that its HMO standards should apply to all HMO’s whether or not they are legally required to have a license. But if it doesn’t know where a high proportion of them are, then how can it improve them?

The concentration of ‘non-decent’ homes in some areas in Swindon is very pronounced with the percentage as high as 42% in Eastcott, 40% in Central and 38% in both Gorse Hill & Pinehurst, and Walcot. In the first two of these, since more than a quarter of the homes were PRS (in the 2011) Census, it’s a fair bet that many of the ‘non-decent’ ones will be PRS.

The document recently put to the Cabinet accepts the inevitable and admits that the RST “cannot be expected to keep pace with the growth in the private rented sector without additional resources”. However, whilst the Council accepts that it has “an important role in driving up standards wherever this is found necessary”, the document fails to propose any additional resources. This means that it will continue to be unable to carry out its stated policy. The three enforcement officers cannot cover 16,000 plus properties.

The document makes the rather abstract comment that the Council will “implement any changes that are necessary to improve the private rented sector” without specifying how. It then says it will “develop its policy to ensure that HMO’s are appropriately regulated in accordance with its statutory powers”. Yet without an increase in resources the RST cannot do either of these things.

What we need from the Council is not pious words but action directed at tackling bad landlords and living conditions which are unacceptable. Producing some more PRS homes according to the Council’s suggestion will not make already existing landlords improve the quality of their properties. It is absurd to suggest that this would be the outcome of ‘competition’ between landlords for tenants because the Council might have promoted some (unspecified number of) PRS homes with better conditions of tenure. The reality is that tenants are competing for a very scarce resource, genuinely affordable rent. Landlords have no shortage of would-be tenants.

STCG is opposed to the idea of setting up a Municipal Housing Company “to add momentum and breadth to the affordable and private rented offer” in Swindon. There is no shortage of PRS accommodation and the Council can itself build Council homes with its own resources.

Don’t neglect the rich!

Swindon’s “housing offer” is apparently “not sufficiently developed at higher income levels to support the type of jobs that the town needs in terms of continued growth and regeneration of the town centre”. Over the last two decades the housing market has “almost ignored higher earners”. We are told that this “lack of offer also hampers our ability to sell Swindon more widely and convince both employers and employees that Swindon can meet their aspirations in terms of opportunity and lifestyle”. It’s difficult to know exactly what the Council is suggesting here. Employers are hardly likely to determine whether or not to move or launch a company in Swindon based on whether or not there is a luxury home that they can move into. A cursory look on the internet will find homes available in the £1 million or more bracket in Swindon. Aren’t these sufficiently luxurious? Company executives, of course, are going to determine whether or not to move a company to the town on the basis of traditional factors such as wages, transport logistics and so on on, not whether they can find a suitable luxury home in Swindon rather than Lechlade or Cirencester.

Instead of worrying about people who can afford to live where they chose, the Council should concentrate on the acute shortage of genuinely affordable homes for rent.

Swindon’s administration fails the test

As we said in our previous contribution to the discussion, the test of the current Council administration would be whether it accepted the need to increase the number of ‘social rent’ homes in the town and sought to address it. It’s current proposals, on the contrary will

  • promote a decrease in the number of ‘social rent’ homes that it owns and

  • insofar as it supports the efforts of the government to sell off as many Council homes as possible under RTB, promote a decline in its stock numbers.

We will therefore have less Council homes and by degrees more ‘social rent’ homes will be replaced by AR homes. As a consequence this will make the ‘crisis of affordability’ even worse.

Given the size of the PRS it is important to work to improve the quality of those homes available. We put forward some proposals. Yet instead of using the past 18 moths to come up with definite proposals the Council has failed to propose any extra resources to the RST even though it recognises it is under-resourced.

Finally we reproduce below our proposals from “Tackling Swindon’s Housing Crisis”.

Martin Wicks

Secretary, Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

November 2014

Appendix

Tackling Swindon’s Housing Crisis” – Conclusions

6. Conclusions

Swindon Tenants Campaign Group is proposing the following measures to tackle the housing crisis in Swindon.

1) An annual Council house building programme.

The scale of the housing crisis in Swindon demands an increase in the provision of homes with genuinely affordable rent. The increase in private rented accommodation includes much speculative activity which offers high rents with an absence of secure tenancy which is especially needed for families with children at school. A Council house building programme is required to address this shortage. How large a building programme we can carry out is a practical question which needs to be balanced with the need to maintain the standard of our existing stock. Borrowing money from the Public Works Loans Board will enable us to build Council homes and charge Council rents.

An annual programme, even if smaller than we would wish, is crucial to develop the necessary staff expertise to carry out an annual programme and to put in place the infrastructure to build on a larger scale should more resources become available. It will also have the merit of halting the slow decline of our stock numbers. We can use the borrowing cap

2) A survey of private sector tenants and housing stock, and increased resources for policing the PRS.

Instead of seeking to become a provider of private rented accommodation the Council should devote more resources to the Residential Services Team if its stated aim of improving standards across the PRS in the town is to be brought to fruition. The increasing size of the PRS stock means that this should be a priority. The Council should examine licensing all HMO’s and using a selective licensing system, drawing on the experience in other towns.

3) The Council should not join the LAMS scheme to become a mortgage provider.

The numbers of mortgages that it could provide are so small as to have a negligible impact and would risk losing money in the case of default. {The Council abandoned this proposal.}

4) The Council should campaign for the writing off or suspension of the Housing ‘debt’ associated with the ‘one off debt settlement’.

Given the scale of the housing crisis, both locally and nationally, this measure would promote socially useful Council house building and would create employment for unemployed building workers. It would provide significant extra resources for both new build and maintenance of the existing stock.

5) The Council should not apply to the HCA for funding under current conditions.

The grant available from the HCA comes with unacceptable conditions attached. It would lead to a reduction in the numbers of Council homes with Council rents and the selling of some of our homes as they become void. We should oppose driving up ‘social rent’ towards market levels.

6) The rent for the new homes to be built in the Sussex Square regeneration should be set at ‘social rent’ instead of “affordable rent” level.

Swindon Council should oppose the introduction of “affordable rent” in the town. The assertion that charging Council rents in Sussex Square is ‘unviable’ is simply not true.

7) We should press for an end to Right to Buy, as is happening in Scotland.

RTB, especially in conditions where there is hardly any council house building taking place, is responsible for a slow decline in the Council housing stock, both locally and nationally. The policy should be abandoned. So long as it continues we should demand a change of policy so that Councils can keep all the receipts from RTB and determine how the money is spent, without central government conditions.

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