A Roof over their Heads

One indicator of the health of civil society is whether all citizens have a secure place of residence. Therefore, it is disturbing to learn that, in 2016, 1,153 households in Wyre Forest were either in danger of becoming homeless, or had been successfully re-housed after being homeless. The majority of cases were actually resolved without residents having to quit their homes, often after decisive intervention by district council housing officers. However, 231 applications were made to be classified as homeless, of which 184 were accepted as “priority”, ie, categories of applicant whom the district council are required by law to assist. This number represented a significant increase from the 165 cases in 2015.

This body of evidence indicates that current government housing policy is not working.

All Housing Authorities try to avoid the placement of homeless families in Bed and Breakfast accommodation, which is both unsuitable for family life and expensive. Unfortunately, in 2016, B&B had to be used on twenty-six occasions. In these worrying circumstances, the district council has taken the decision to open a temporary accommodation hostel in New Street, Stourport, consisting of eleven en-suite bedrooms, a communal kitchen and an office. Obviously, length of time in residence will vary, but the expectation is weeks, rather than months. In addition to avoiding Bed and Breakfasts, the hostel option will enable housing officers to avoid placement in the worst of other unsuitable accommodation.

Better provision for homeless families is welcome, but a long way from being a solution to housing issues in Wyre Forest and nationally.

Homeless families will become tenants, ie, paying a rent to a landlord. Although given priority over others on the Housing Waiting List if allocated a housing association property, they will not usually be housed in accommodation that will meet their long-term needs. Therefore, along with many families re-housed in privately rented accommodation, they will be likely to join others on the Waiting List seeking more suitable homes to rent. In Wyre Forest, the total number waiting is 3,100 households. Consider this level of demand with the district council’s annual target of new “affordable” homes, just 100 per annum.

Admittedly, this comparison is not, on its own, entirely satisfactory, because homes within existing stock become available for re-allocation. Nor, actually, is the figure of 100 entirely satisfactory, because it is below the real estimated need of 149 per annum. The council has not set this higher figure as its target because it does not consider it to be achievable under current government policies. Furthermore, even the term “affordable” is not satisfactory. It includes “shared ownership”, ie, part-rent, part-buy. This option is beyond the means of many on the Waiting List, yet because of policies driven by ideology, not evidence, the government demands that this option is disproportionally favoured. For example, from the list of “affordable housing” completions in the district in 2016/17, one sees that the developments at Shaw Hedge Road, Bewdley; Keats Place, Offmore; and Drakes Crescent, Habberley; offer only shared ownership. The tenure of six of the ten properties on the former Coopers Arms site, Habberley, is, likewise, shared ownership. Only on one site, at Silverwoods, is the development of homes, four units, exclusively for rent.

Moreover, the total number of these new properties of either tenure suitable for families on the Waiting List, is paltry, just twenty-five. Although the council’s target of 100 has been exceeded, by twenty-seven, the figure is skewed by 100 of them being Community Housing’s extra care flats at Berrington Court, Silverwoods.

It is clear that the number of affordable homes for rent suitable for families in Wyre Forest falls a long way short of meeting existing need.

The problems faced by Wyre Forest District Council and its housing partners cannot be solved locally, because the failed policies of the Coalition, Cameron and May governments of the past seven years are to blame. National policy has to change.

From a Wyre Forest perspective, three of the changes Labour would make are,

  • A re-definition of “affordable”, which would enable rent levels to be set at a lower rate than at present;
  • “Shared ownership” to be excluded from the definition of “affordable housing” and housing of this type substantially down-graded as a proportion of properties offered by councils or, (as in Wyre Forest’s case), by housing associations;
  • Greatly increased capital investment, to fund a building programme, of which Wyre Forest’s share would build 3,000 genuinely affordable homes to rent by 2034, (the timescale of the District Local Plan).

Surely, our values as a society should make us strive for a suitable home for all.

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