Monday, 6 June 2016

Northumberland Labour Group open letter to Prime Minister

Your failure to deliver ‘localism’ and your government’s action and inaction and its catastrophic effect on social housing and communities.


Dear Prime Minister

‘Localism’ and its failure in New Hartley, Northumberland.

Your government promised so much on the so called ‘localism agenda’ yet in Northumberland we’re now dealing with a catalogue of promises to communities that have been broken. We’re sad to say ‘localism’ has been a false dawn.

On a series of developments, local people have made coherent arguments to the County Planning Committee only to be ‘side lined’ by ‘guidance’ from your government which has effectively undermined the ‘neighbourhood planning processes which was meant to involve local communities directly and in a way that Planning Committees could lawfully take into account. The latest ‘guidance’ from DCLG and the Treasury throws that onto the fire with a presumption now in favour of the developer. This guidance has tied the hands of Planning Committee’s and allowed developers to ride roughshod over our local community. This is evident in an application by Barratt’s for a disproportionately large new housing development in New Hartley. The council through its Planning Committee now faces an invidious position where if it reflects the views and reasonable wishes of its community in New Hartley and rejects a planning application for hundreds of new homes then it could lose an inevitable appeal from the developer costing council tax payers across Northumberland many thousands of pounds.

Not content with slashing the council’s budget by over 80% and reducing the payments for rural communities to £6.85 per person compared with £66.82 for nearby urban residents, you’re now penalising communities by railroading developments through, all the while, telling local communities that their views can be fairly represented by their local representatives. That is cynical and duplicitous. 

The end of Social Housing?

In Northumberland, this administration led by the Labour party have delivered on a promise to build ‘thousands’ of new affordable homes. In the first three years, we’ve built over 700 new homes for local families and we’ve reduced the housing waiting list by nearly 50% yet we’re being penalised by your government.

Your Housing and Planning Act contains measures which could dramatically reduce the country’s stocks of social housing which is relied on by thousands to keep a secure roof over their heads and who can’t afford other homes like home ownership and private rented.

This could spell the end of social housing. How?

By changing the definition of affordable housing

Currently councils have the leeway over approving new housing developments if a proportion being built is ‘affordable housing’. Affordable housing includes rented homes, including social housing, and shared ownership

But the new definition includes starter homes – homes to buy for first time buyers under 40 costing, after the discount, £450,000 in London or £250,000 elsewhere and provided with a tax payer funded 20% discount - that’s around £60,000 in the North East.  If sold after 5 years, the owner doesn’t have to repay the 20% discount effectively a tax hand-out from taxpayers. Local councils could in future be forced to allow developers to build starter homes rather than affordable rented homes.

This could be really bad news for rural areas in Northumberland where demand for affordable homes is greatest. Rural areas will also be hit by government orders that developers don’t have to build affordable homes for new housing developments of 10 or less homes. We don’t know why you’re penalising rural communities especially in the North and West of Northumberland with the so called ‘rural double whammy’ – cutting grant funding to rural residents while hammering the sustainability of rural communities through these disastrous attacks on development plans?

But starter homes lock out working families

Shelter has found that starter homes will not be affordable to those on average earnings. They will be unaffordable in over 98% of the country to those on the national living wage. In Northumberland where the average wage is around £24,000, prospective buyers will need to get at least a £13,000 a year pay rise to afford to buy a starter home here.


Stop councils and housing associations building new social housing

Rents will be reduced by 1% each year for the next 4 years. Sounds good but it amounts to around 75p a week reduction for Northumberland council tenants and little if anything for the 72% of our tenants on Housing Benefit. But for this council it means a cut of £164m in our housing plan to build new council homes – meaning we can’t build any more. Housing Associations have put on hold £1.5bn development funds too – so not much hope of them building new social rented homes. Local councils have warned that it could also mean cuts to services as rent income is reduced.

Sell off what you can

Thousands of council homes were sold off after the original Right to Buy and this scheme is to be extended to housing association tenants. The maximum discounts of £77,900 will be paid for by councils who still have council houses, like Northumberland, by the forced sale of their higher value council houses when they become empty. But if councils decide not to sell they will still have to pay the government anyway as if it had been sold. 

An analysis by Shelter suggests that Northumberland will have to raise an estimated £24,326,996 a year by selling off 180 homes. 

This is on top of the already savage cuts imposed on councils by this Tory government, an 80% cut in the case of Northumberland by 2020

But don’t worry we’ll replace all those sold.

Really I’ve heard this before? Thatcher gave that commitment in 1980 on the original Right to Buy for council tenants. Did it happen? No! Last year just one new social rented house has been built for every ten sold! How can you build a new home when the money from the sale goes to paying for the discount on sold housing association homes? It simply doesn’t make any sense.

Some will have to ‘Pay to Stay’ as council tenants

Tenants with a joint annual income of more than £31,000 or more will have to pay the market rent – in Northumberland around £30 a week more. It’s called ‘Pay to Stay’.  Grant Schapps Housing Minister in the last coalition Government said, referring to social housing tenants, “It’s time to end this handout to the very rich”.

So who are the rich affected by this policy? They are a working couple on the National Living Wage of £7.85 an hour or Minimum Wage of £7.20 an hour, a Firefighter and teacher starting on their career!

Many commentators have said this will not force people into better jobs merely force them out of council housing. Many have lived in their family home for years. And the extra money doesn’t go to councils to help build more homes but to the government to reduce the country’s debt!

It is compulsory for councils but voluntary for housing associations.

Faced with increasing opposition to their plans the government have decided that this won’t apply to tenants who are on Housing Benefit. Small comfort indeed but not for around 1 in 3 tenants in Northumberland who will have to pay more for less.

When a home’s not a home?

The Act has a measure to end lifetime tenancies.  A council tenant, provided they stick to their tenancy agreement, has a secure tenancy for life. For many this means a home for life in supportive local communities. This will be changed for new tenants to 2 or 10 year tenancies. Quite how council’s will decide who can keep their tenancy is anybody’s guess as your government haven’t made it clear. This is likely to cause destruction of established communities as well as significant costs on local councils.

In Northumberland the Labour administration is proud to have built almost 700 new affordable homes in the last 3 years. But now we can’t build any more new homes which bad news indeed for over 8,000 people languishing on our housing waiting list in desperate need.

This government’s ideological approach to solving the country’s housing crisis is to build homes for sale. Already young people simply can’t afford to buy. They see social housing as a toxic brand as assets, not people’s homes, to sell off!

In Northumberland we are exploring ways to provide affordable rented homes in different ways! We owe it to all those in desperate need of a genuinely affordable rented home to seek to offset the retrograde actions of your government which promised so much and yet is delivering only for a very small section of our society. Your actions Mr Cameron are storing up desperate times for future generations and we can only urge you to live by what you promised the people of this country and this county Northumberland. Your actions are selling progressive council’s like Northumberland down the river and are cynically duplicitous.

Councillor Allan Hepple

Cabinet member for Economic Growth

Northumberland County Council


Councillor Susan Dungworth

Hartley Ward

Northumberland County Council


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