City council’s housing failure

Karin Smyth MPBristol South MP Karin Smyth has criticised the failure of Bristol City Council to actively engage citizens in the development of its strategy to address future housing need.

In her published response to the council’s draft housing strategy, the Labour MP lists groups of city residents which have been omitted from the development of the new strategy:
• Current and potential tenants
• People looking to buy a first home or move to a larger property
• Older people wanting to downsize and
• Homeless young people

She said: “Bristol’s citizens don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of openness, accountability and empowerment, the council really should be engaging those whose lives stand to be most profoundly affected by its future approach to the housing crisis which is no less than a social timebomb.

“Too many Bristol people are living in poor or inadequate accommodation, and it is vital that the council shapes the right means of tackling our city’s housing needs for coming generations. The draft strategy is a start, but it leaves much, much work to be done.”

The following is Karin Smyth’s submission to Bristol City Council in response to the summer 2015 publication of its draft Housing Strategy:

Thank you for inviting me to respond to the draft Housing Strategy for Bristol 2015-2020, the current lack of decent, affordable housing is a key issue affecting my constituents. Since being elected in May I have been contacted by families living in acutely overcrowded homes or facing eviction, young people who are sofa surfing, effectively homeless, older people looking to downsize and many others forced to live in very poor privately rented accommodation.

Therefore I welcome the publication of the draft Strategy. It identifies many of the challenges we face in our city and the solution – to build more homes, to make best use of existing buildings and to intervene early before housing crisis occurs.

One of the strengths of the Strategy will be the partnership working across the housing sector, I was pleased to read the expectation that all those partners will be expected to align their business strategies and business plans to the overall Strategy. However I was disappointed that there appears to be no opportunity for the users of housing – current and potential tenants, those seeking to purchase a first home or move to a larger property, older people looking to downsize, homeless young people – to participate in the development of the Strategy. I believe this is a weakness of the plan.

With regard to the provision of more affordable homes in Bristol the headline proposal for 2500 appears to be below that envisaged in the Bristol Mayor’s Affordable Housing Delivery Framework, approved in October 2013. It is disappointing that there is no specific explanation for this reduction or detailed analysis as to why this framework may be under delivering new homes. In Bristol South in recent weeks we have seen on one Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) site a reduction in proposed affordable homes from 30% to fewer than 10%. It is not clear to me whether the 2500 figure is achievable if this reduction is replicated on other sites.

I was also surprised to see no reference at all to the Bristol Housing Zone within my constituency announced by George Osborne MP in the March 2015 Budget.

It is also disappointing that there is no differentiation between proposed numbers of new “social” housing and “affordable” housing. I am already aware that many in housing need have expressed concern that they are unable to afford new so-called affordable housing.

The proposal for a new not-for-profit Privately Rented Sector (PRS) provider is an exciting development which I fully support. In the shorter term I would also support the roll out of the landlord licensing scheme, proposals for longer term tenancies and a kite mark for landlords. I would be keen to learn more details about how under-occupation and the vacancy rate in the PRS could be addressed.

The identification of the need for new high quality homes which appeal to healthier, fitter, older people is welcome. This has the potential to release larger family homes, reducing under occupancy, however is not clear how this need is to be addressed.

It is important that housing is viewed as more than just bricks and mortar, so the emphasis on a holistic approach to preventing housing crisis through intervention is most welcome. Working with families and individuals at times of crisis should reduce future problems and I would hope that the promotion of the Bristol Energy Company – an important legacy of Bristol 2015 – will have an impact on fuel poverty. I was however disappointed that there was no reference to the impact of local antisocial behaviour of an individual’s or a family’s housing need, an issue which is often raised with me by constituents.

The success of the Housing Strategy for Bristol is vital for the overall success of our city, but more importantly it has the potential to offer hope to many of my constituents living in poor or inadequate accommodation. I look forward to reading the outcome of this consultation and the publication of the final document.