Housing held Hostage (a 2023 update)
Nationally, the ‘build more homes’ mantra sidesteps the issue of affordability. Britain needs to build council homes by the 100s of thousands. In Brighton & Hove, as the birth-rate drops, as half the population is swapped out by those who can afford to come and live here, as school leavers realise they’ll have to leave the city to have a home of their own…a coalition of citizen campaigners wrestle with harsh realities.
Adrian Hart, April 2023.
It’s a damp mid-October Wednesday in the city and I’m attending an Action on Homes one day-conference organised by Brighton & Hove Housing Coalition. Apart from the campaigners and various expert speakers scheduled for the opening sessions, there is only a handful of attendees sitting in the large hall of the Brighthelm Centre.
It’s a shame. Given all that is said on this subject by the political left very few Green or Labour councillors attended the event (I counted three out of a combined 36 who dropped by for a short while). Do our elected representatives feel the problem is so intractable there’s no point discussing it anymore?
With successive Labour and Conservative governments cowing to the vested interests of the large house building firms, the crisis could drive a housing campaigner to despair. Until recently, when Brighton campaigners asked individual Labour or Green councillors why they had supported a particular large-scale luxury apartment development – one with zero genuinely affordable homes – these councillors would invariably shrug and mumble something about targets and central government having a gun to their heads. Now they can switch to a new excuse for failing on affordable housing. Now they can refer to the government caving in to rebel Tory MPs and the ‘not-in-my-back-yard’ (nimbys) determined to block any development they don’t like. It goes without saying that progressive-minded councillors never want to be dubbed a ‘nimby’.
The Targets Debate.
In December, instead of introducing legislation designed to accelerate UK housebuilding the government opted to appease the rebels by scrapping the mandatory target of 300,000 new homes a year. This has led to a chain reaction of local authorities abandoning commitments to reach their respective targets. In the case of Brighton & Hove, a long term failure to demonstrate a 5 year plan for land to build on has allowed proposals for bloated, overpriced luxury schemes to win planning permission on appeal.
Writing for Brighton and Hove News, Ed Deedman of Cayuga Homes regards the targets approach as common sense. After all, says Deedman, “we don’t build anything like the number of new houses we need in the country to satisfy our growing population”. Scathing of the government’s climb-down, Deedman succinctly describes how the system worked to ensure developers got their way: “The targets are mandatory and failing to deliver on them comes at a cost. Developers challenge refusals via the appeals system and, if the appeal officer agrees that the housing target is not being met, the presumption to build is weighted heavily in favour of the development and appeals are then frequently granted”.
Similarly scathing of the government climb-down, Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, describes the current situation like this:
“The collapse in planning permissions is a direct result of the government’s increasingly anti- development policies and negative rhetoric which has effectively created a nimby’s charter…”
This may be true in wealthy areas where so-called ‘nimbys’ often wield power and influence when they don’t like a proposed development. But in Brighton and Hove, ‘nimby’ can be weaponised by big house builders against everyday local communities. When all neighbourhood communities want is human centred developments containing homes their children stand half a chance of affording one day the accusation of nimbyism is grotesque. It is especially sick-making when ‘nimbys’ are low-income families and their accusers are billionaire developers.
For its part, the government now defends the rebel amended legislation. A spokesman said, “[Dropping house building targets] will stop communities being exposed to development by appeal, where developers push new sites through the system before they have built out existing permissions”. Unable to imagine that it might be ordinary communities objecting to house building, Labour argue the government is the villain of the piece by setting in train “a collapse in housebuilding across England that will deepen the housing crisis…”. Yet, in Brighton and Hove at least, Jeremy Mustoe of the Brighton Society offers a rational assessment of what’s really happening. In his view, the targets = ‘good’ versus scrapping them = ‘bad’ wrangle ignores the severe deficiencies of the target-based approach. Mustoe hits the nail on the head:
“House building targets kill off local planning control and community involvement. The emphasis on pure numbers leads to the wrong type of housing and it ignores other important planning considerations such as heritage and landscape concerns. It effectively transfers power over planning matters into the hands of big powerful developers”.
Repeat after me … unaffordable now means … “Affordable!”
The agony of housing campaigners is made worse by the Orwellian language used by town hall planning officers. The quasi-judicial realm of planning law allows the term “affordable” to mean a 30 to 40 percent discount on what would otherwise be the market value of a home. In other words, for most people, “affordable” means unaffordable. The delusion of our government, of local planning officials and far too many councillors is that maximising new so-called affordable homes is ‘tackling the housing crisis’. At best, it might mean releasing vacated flats back into the rental market as the new homes become occupied by people just about able to make the step up. In reality though, pressure on developers to include a percentage of discounted homes as a pre-condition of planning permission amounts to nothing thanks to the ‘viability loophole’. The loophole allows developers to shirk their discounted ‘affordable’ obligations by arguing that onsite financial pressures have made all but a tiny provision unviable to the successful completion of the project.
But there’s another problem. In Brighton, a city whose population is highly mobile, a city where private rental accommodation (if you can find any) is insecure and short-term, the influx of a new smart set steadily colonising developments like the Edward Street Quarter means half the population is being body-swapped. Unless you’re lucky, the experience of being exiled from the city is on the cards for most. And the birth-rate is falling. If you live in cramped, unsuitable housing (an HMO, a flat-share) it’s untenable to start a family. The consequences of falling birth rates are being felt in the city’s schools.
Back at the conference, on a video screen above the Brighthelm stage, we’re watching a harrowing film about a young woman called Paige Greenaway. Paige had lived on the streets in Brighton and Hove for seven years and used cannabis and crack cocaine to cope with her mental ill-health. Early in 2020 Paige took her own life (she was 23). By this time she was off the streets and the circumstances of her death seem to be about poor mental health rather than her period as a rough sleeper. Nonetheless, a BBC documentary, shot when Paige was 21, offered a moving account of a young woman sleeping rough in the city (an account made all the more poignant by how smart and warm hearted Paige was).
The seemingly insurmountable task of challenging the big-house builder oligopoly can leave housing campaigners paralysed. Increasingly they turn to the tragedy of homelessness as a focus for tangible action. We should commend the tireless efforts, spanning many years, of Jim Deans, John Hadman, Daniel Harris, Maria Garret-Gotch and the other stalwart activists at BHHC (David Thomas, Charles Harrison, David Croydon – and of course the late Barry Hughes). The Coalition carries out vital work to ease the plight of homeless rough-sleepers.
Of course, the extent to which the plight of rough sleepers is a housing issue is debatable. It certainly does relate to a lack of affordable and available homes but the issue of drug and alcohol addiction exists all by itself as a grim, inescapable determinant. As with street beggars, not all rough sleepers are addicts (but a great many are). Into the mix we must add severe mental ill-health, the experience of domestic violence and family breakdown (nationally, at least 1 in 4 rough sleepers have been in care). Brighton is currently the epicentre of Britain’s south coast drugs trade. It’s important to recognise that the cocaine and crack-cocaine trade alone involves extraordinary numbers of ‘customers’ that go far beyond the rough sleeping addict cohort. A press investigation that conducted 2,000 interviews estimated that 1 in 5 people in the city take cocaine (1 in 10 regularly use MDMA and 1 in 14 had tried ketamine). All of this makes Brighton the place for cheap drugs and the perfect place for addicts to be.
To their credit Brighton’s campaigners square up to the big picture on our national housing crisis with a determination to at least describe it accurately. Andy Winter, chief executive of Brighton Housing Trust for 36 years, is absolutely correct when he says Britain must build council houses by the 100s of thousands. We don’t need more private sector affordable homes, we need council houses. We need to kick-start a new Macmillan-style era of state house building but with the care for quality last seen in 1930s state house-building. And we need to abolish council house tenant right to buy because the stock must be retained.
4 things our city council should be demanding of government.
1. A large scale nationwide council house building programme.
Countrywide there is no shortage of land. Only 1.6 percent of land (including gardens) is given over to housing. Large swathes of the Green Belt need building on. This sounds outlandish until you realise that huge amounts of land classified as green belt is in fact scrub or barren land and in no way matches the bucolic appeal that ‘green belt’ implies. Let’s build new estates of council houses on it while utilising any brownfield sites available. We should ask our Labour and Tory councillors why their parties don’t enact this when in government.
Note: The Tories will instinctively oppose building council houses on a mass scale. The interests they serve are committed to generating profit by keeping house prices high and land rationed. Labour’s failure needs an explanation! That said, centre-right economists like Liam Halligan sound like leftists when urging government to break the power of the housebuilder giants (‘every so often you have to kick the capitalists in the shins to keep them honest’ quipped Halligan at October’s Battle of Ideas conference).
2. Abolish the 1961 Land Compensation Act
It is land ownership that stands in the way. Big business buys up pre-planning permission land and the iniquitous 1961 Land Compensation Act ensures the owners reap the financial gain from permissions granted (in other countries 50 percent of the land gain goes to the community). Buying up land, hoovering up permissions and sometimes sitting on the land for years while values rise results in the big developers putting the small house builders out of business. In short, the big house builders act like a cartel. That governments (both Labour and Tory) have so far refused to take on such a powerful vested interest speaks for itself. The push will have to come in the form of a people’s campaign. MPs should tell voters where they stand on this question.
3. Regulate Airbnb and other forms of short-term letting.
Flats and houses that used to be part of the rental market but are now Airbnb lets (or similar) should abide by a 90 day ruling. The UK government has legislated in London so that Airbnb properties cannot be let for more than 90 days a year (this restriction applies to both 90 days in a row or 90 days throughout the year). Government must do this for Brighton and Hove too. There are some promising signs that levelling up and housing secretary Michael Gove wants to take action on Airbnb ‘mega hosts’ (1).
4. Take action on empty homes.
There are 237,000 long term empty homes in England. Another 231,000 are short-term empty and 185,000 are empty but exempt from council tax. This adds up to 653,000 homes no one lives in. On top of this figure there are a further 253,000 ‘furnished empties’ (though it’s impossible to know how many of these are Airbnb lets or other kinds of holiday or second homes). The already existing ‘empty dwelling management order’ legislation needs to be allowed to perform its intended social duty rather than be frustrated by government red tape designed to impede it.
4 things citizens should say to Brighton & Hove City Council.
1. Be ambitious.
In Brighton and Hove, flanked by sea and downs, there certainly is a shortage of land but we can still be ambitious. As John McKean of the Regency Society put it:
“Over 40% of the city’s land cannot be built up as it is in the national park (including the ancient woodland at Stanmer Park). North and south, the city is hedged in by park and sea: but this is an opportunity. Ambitious Brighton & Hove must think itself a city… [ ] … to the north and south, at the strong boundaries of the green and blue we could be building up to our conceptual city walls – for there is just no way we will ever breach them”.
2. Support Community Land Trust, co-ops and other grassroots schemes.
McKean writes optimistically about Community Land Trust schemes, co-housing, co-ops and self-build projects.
“It is great to have less planned, less formal areas in our city, and encouragement of self-build, custom-build or CLT group is to be heartily supported. But why just sweep them to these edges (almost as if they housed peripheral citizens). Why not here build strong urban developments, with sturdy, centred, new neighbourhoods up to our unchangeable northern edge – punctured with frequent hidden escape tunnels opening into the national park beyond. And why not then softer, looser more open areas contained within the city?”
3. Demand our three MPs press parliament to regulate Airbnb in our city and take action on empty homes.
We have 5000 households on the council house waiting list and around 2000 in temporary or emergency accommodation. The scramble to grab any kind of private rented accommodation is becoming increasingly desperate. Over 2,000 houses and flats are ‘entire home/apartment’ Airbnb rentals. Daniel Harris of the Housing Coalition pins culpability not on the Airbnb hosts who rent a room in their home but on the ‘mega hosts’. With multiple listings across Brighton & Hove, a new breed of Airbnb host is harvesting up what might otherwise be homes to rent or buy. Abandoning its original ethos, Airbnb now works hard to attract commercial-scale mega hosts onto the platform.
The wider loss of what would have been residential use-only homes to what is now essentially a commercial bnb hotel operation, many on the more luxury side of the market, or catering for the stag and hen groups, who converge on the city every weekend, is causing devastation to our seaside community.
Daniel Harris, BHHC
We should ask our council leaders and our three MPs if they support the housing secretary in his attempts to regulate Airbnb? (2) The empty homes scandal is another issue forever kicked into the long grass. As Chris Bailey, Campaigns Manager for Action on Empty Homes, pointed out at the conference, in Brighton & Hove around 4,500 are empty (1,350 long-term, plus 850 exempt) with around 2,000 more declared as second homes. Compare this to the housing target in the City Plan of 13,200 homes by 2030. Empty homes equal about half of the total requirement! (a huge proportion of the target figure). A principled council would have mounted a national campaign with other UK LAs to raise this issue – an issue ignored for decades by every UK government – they just can’t bear to rock the boat.
4. Commend the things our council gets right and search out good practice in other UK cities.
At the conference, Brighton and Hove City Council came in for plenty of criticism. The town hall was a place, commented one participant, “where ideas go to die”. A surprise contribution came from the floor when Paul Cooper, the council’s recently appointed Assistant Director for Housing Needs and Supply took the mic. He urged that we celebrate the positive steps the council is taking and gave the example of how the council is on track to deliver around 740 new affordable homes as part of a joint venture. Such initiatives, said Cooper, represented a “massive undertaking”.
An impressive example of good practice was presented to the conference. Preston City Council’s ground-breaking initiative has boosted the local economy and won considerable approval from the public. Preston’s success is due to an approach known as community wealth-building. In the past, the council relied on global developers but too often the results offered little in the way of affordable homes or revitalising the local economy. Council leader Matthew Brown set out the key ingredients of community wealth building:
“A central part of our approach is encouraging big institutions such as hospitals and universities to join this movement for economic and social progress. These “anchor institutions” are unlike conventional businesses: they’re publicly owned, won’t get up and leave, spend billions annually and employ thousands of people in the area. [ ] These policies are transforming Preston. Our city is being regenerated by common endeavour, with the public sector delivering more contracts to local companies and employing many more local workers”.
Part of this approach has included the ‘Making Homes from Houses’ project. As a direct result affordable homes in Preston have increased in recent years. For Jim Deans of Brighton and Hove Housing Coalition the ‘Preston Model’ stands as a shining example – it clearly shows our city council how to do it. Surely, says Deans, with the biggest Marina in Europe, with Amex and numerous other big players we should be able to get them round a table and start the community wealth building process?
A recent episode of BBCs Panorama vividly demonstrated the degradation of council and housing association homes (and of course privately rented homes too). We can only hope that new legislation proposed by government will force landlords to fix damp and mould.
The government says it is investing 11.5 billion in affordable homes. Let’s see what that means (but it’s certainly not a Macmillan era council house building programme).
One morsel of unambiguously good news is that the government has asked the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to conduct an inquiry into the house building sector. Could this be a challenge to the big house-builder oligopoly? So long as this virtual cartel continues to dominate the sector, rents and house prices will stay high ensuring the housing crisis will rumble on.