Friday, January 11, 2019

Gateshead's housing strategy - better late than never

Earlier this week I attended an advisory group at Gateshead Civic Centre about the council's housing strategy. The old strategy finished at the end of 2018 but during that year, I banged on about the need to get the new strategy in place. From May onwards I raised it at every full council. I got a variety of responses from the cabinet member for housing, Cllr Malcom Brain, as to why the new draft strategy was not materialising, including a claim by him that he was waiting for "ideas from officers" on what to include. I always though politics was supposed to be the other way round - politicians with ideas seeking the advice of expert officers on how to implement them. As the year wore on, the excuses became thinner and thinner until, by October, a draft went to cabinet and approved for consultation with the implementation date being 1st January 2019.

I asked questions about how members could be involved given the tight timetable to bring the consultation responses back to cabinet in December when the final strategy would be signed off. As a result, it was agreed a members' advisory group would be held on 9th January. It then emerged that the strategy would not go to cabinet in December but would go instead in March, getting us round the problem I had raised of giving members a say on the strategy 9 days after it went into operation. Cllr Brain's management of the housing strategy has been somewhat shambolic, though he did try to blame me at the December full council meeting for the delay in implementing it because of my perfectly reasonable request that members have a say on the strategy before rather than after it is implemented!

Anyway, when I ready the draft strategy in October I was concerned about how woolly the document was. This was a point to which I returned on 9th January. In addition, I made the following points:
  • The mixed market approach is the right one but there is still too much focus on home ownership. The key focus instead should be on providing sufficient homes. Tenure is of secondary importance.
  • Is the strategy future proof? I'm not sure it is. I've been saying for the past 8 or more years, since work started on rewriting the local plan, that we have lots of family homes in Gateshead but a large number are occupied by elderly individuals or couples who have lived there for decades. Many of them would happily downsize to a smaller property in their existing community but can't because there is nothing available. The Council's local plan requires 60% of new houses to be "family" homes. I think this figure is too high. Building housing for older people actually frees up family homes and allows for a better match between the individual and the home in which they live.
  • Is the strategy Brexit proof? Given that most building materials and a significant amount of skilled construction labour comes from the EU, how do we cope once Brexit (hard or soft) has cut us off from materials and manpower? The strategy does not address this.
  • And finally, there is no mention of the future of the council's high rise blocks. Most of our voids are in them. People in the social sector want to live in houses not high rise flats. Maybe it is time to sell off some of the blocks to the private sector (which is able to attract appropriate tenants) and invest in building homes instead. I also made the point that we as a council should also be present in the private rented sector to ensure there is a supply of good quality rented housing that also gives Gateshead a rental income that can go into local services.
So, I said my bit. We shall see what comes of it.

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