The first timetabled meeting of the Cabinet Member for Housing, which I was due to attend as opposition spokesperson, was scheduled to take place on Monday 8th July but was cancelled due to an apparent lack of items to report on.
Given we are in the midst of what is widely accepted as a housing crisis, it was surprising there were no agenda items which would have benefited from public scrutiny. The redevelopment of the Horatia/Leamington House site, fire safety in council tower blocks, anti-social behaviour on council housing estates and regulation of the private rented sector would have been just a few of my agenda item suggestions had I been asked.
The next meeting we were invited to attend was a ‘Special’ Cabinet Member for Housing meeting earlier this week on Tuesday 30th July. Here, the sole agenda item was the proposed development of council homes in Doyle Avenue, Hilsea.
At this we found ourselves faced with a report from officers proposing the development of a site consisting of 16 council homes. Of these new properties 9 would be two bedroom flats, 3 adapted four bedroom homes and 4 three bedroom homes.
The specially adapted homes, for people with disabilities, are clearly in high demand and a need which the private sector has consistently proven itself unable to fulfil. In addition, it is encouraging to see a proposal for this site which includes 100% council rented housing, as opposed to previous suggestions which would have seen a significant proportion of new homes on the site made available for private sale.
While the development of new council homes marks a very welcome departure from the recent council policy of investment only in commercial property outside the city, we remain concerned about the rent levels at which these new properties will be offered.
The report presented to the meeting this week suggested these new homes would be offered at rent levels determined by the Tories’ bogus definition of ‘affordable rent’ – meaning the properties could be let at 80% of the market rate, significantly more than the traditional council ‘social rents’ of approximately 50% of the market rate.
On the Doyle Avenue site this would mean ‘affordable rents’ of £1012.53 per month compared to £461.45 per month for the standard council ‘social rents’ charged in the majority of other council properties. This significant increase puts tenants at serious risk of being pushed into financial hardship.
For example: a family of 2 parents, where one has a disability, is in receipt of benefit and the other is their carer, plus their 4 children moving into one of the 4 bedroom homes may initially find it affordable. However, should the parent in receipt of disability benefit lose their entitlement, the family would suddenly be plunged into crisis as a result of the high rent.
They would see their household income decrease, the Benefit Cap applied and face a significant rent shortfall. The family would then be at risk of being made homeless on affordability grounds and rehoused by the council at public expense.
Why then, were genuinely affordable ‘social rents’ not applied in the first place which would have avoided this situation?
We were told at this week’s meeting that genuinely affordable ‘social rents’ for the Doyle Avenue development were not viable at this stage due to ‘the development economics’, but that this would be reviewed at different points throughout the construction process.
Therefore we proposed that the setting of rents, be they at ‘affordable’ or ‘social’ levels, be brought back to a future public meeting as suggested by the report put to the meeting, instead of being decided behind closed doors. While the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Member for Housing, Darren Sanders, seemed to share some of these concerns, he declined to amend the report to require such a public meeting.
This marks a missed opportunity to ensure that much needed new council housing in our city is let at genuinely affordable levels rather than at the so-called ‘affordable rents’ introduced by Tories in Westminster.
Portsmouth Labour will continue to campaign for all social housing developments in our city to be let at genuinely affordable rents.