Good evening. I am Andrew Mitchell, Cabinet Member for Homes at Cornwall Council. Thank you for the invite to be here tonight.
I think now, here at the beginning of my presentation, is a good time for me to confess that I am most definitely not a housing expert – far from it. But what I think I am is a good judge of what is and what isn’t fair! It is this that took me into local politics some 27 years ago and particularly the realisation that those of my friends at the time who were a lot more sensible than me, trying to get a foot on the property ladder were having to buy in Hayle, Camborne or Penzance as they could not afford a property in St. Ives due to the extreme mismatch of local wages to local house prices.
Looking on line at some of the other presentations you have received, they quite clearly and fully laid out the statistics around housing issues so I intend to stay away from that. Anyway, we all live here, we know how hard it is us, for our loved ones and our general communities to find decent housing at an affordable level.
Which nicely leads in to the challenge you, the Penzance Citizens Panel will address:
“High housing costs, low paid insecure work, eviction and homelessness are all issues that blight local communities in Cornwall, including Penzance. How can we as a community come together to address these issues?”.
So, a nice easy one to start with then!?
Some quick immediate thoughts to that are, firstly we should stop ‘them’ getting away with doing this to us! The problems described in your challenge, our challenge, are not new. Every generation from those who had to work the local Squire’s land, through the Industrial Revolution, through today. In fact it was discussed a hundred years ago, with the need for ‘Homes for Heroes’. After a century of council housing, you would have thought that it would now be in the psyche of central government, but unfortunately not.
I am sure that you, like me are sick and tired of Brexit being on the nightly news every day. What I’m even more annoyed about, even offended and I dare say, disgusted by, is hearing every government minister and Brexiteer saying whether we leave with a good deal, bad deal or no deal, in the long term it doesn’t really matter as we’re the fifth richest country in the world and our economy will survive. What a load of old TOSH! I and no one I know feel like we live in the 5th richest country in the world; so the ‘them’ I referred to are the 5% of the population who own 95% of the wealth!
Another quick response would be for those who believe we have a housing crisis to turn up to planning committee meetings! Whatever the solution is and there isn’t a single silver bullet that will address this, the package will have to include a massive house building programme and every application these days attracts considerable opposition – in general with fair and reasonable concerns.
I will now take a little time to say what Cornwall Council has been doing.
Part of the answer must be to provide more affordable homes – and I am proud of the fact that in 2017/18 we were the top local authority area nationally for the provision of new homes, and have been consistently among the top 3 or 4 areas in recent years. Over the last three years we have seen 2,467 new affordable homes provided in Cornwall.
This is a result of the work of our housing association partners, and the affordable homes provided by private developers, as well as the council’s own efforts.
In Penzance, through the council’s partnership with Galliford Try and LiveWest, a 100% affordable housing development of 24 homes on the former Cormac Depot site on Adelaide Street is due to complete next month and the redevelopment of the former St Clare offices is under construction to provide 127 new homes of which 30% will be affordable.
Last year government lifted the cap on how much we can borrow to fund new council housing. We now have the opportunity to provide a new generation of council homes to meet local housing need. We have already started to gear up with a programme for over 300 homes over the next few years and are currently working up proposals to expand that programme considerably. Cornwall Council has already made the decision to intervene in the housing market. In this brave new world of no borrowing cap, it is my hope that the council can now disrupt the housing market and really shake it up!
Private rented sector represents around 20% of housing provision – but provides substandard accommodation for many
I recognise, however, that despite these efforts, many households will not be able to access an affordable home and for many the only available accommodation will be in the private rented sector.
This has been the fastest growing sector in Cornwall, now representing around 20% of overall housing provision – and is significantly larger than the social housing sector in Cornwall.
Many families with children are in private rented housing and we have also seen an increase in people aged 45-54 living in private rent. We also have a growing student population of whom 9 out of 10 live in this sector.
My aspiration is to have a high quality private rented sector that is a sector of choice but that is not, unfortunately, the current reality.
The private rented sector has some of the worst disrepair in Cornwall with over 4,000 homes having F or G energy ratings and we estimate that around half of properties are not Decent.
With this in mind, it is important that we take a pro-active approach to the private rented sector: last year we inspected over 500 properties, licensed over 570 houses in multiple occupation, prosecuted 15 landlords and increased membership of the Cornwall Responsible Landlord Scheme so that almost 11,000 homes are covered by member landlords.
Cornwall Council intervening directly and committing £200 million towards high quality private rented homes
The Council is also intervening directly in the private rented market through our Housing Development Programme.
We have committed to invest £200m to provide high quality private rented homes for local people across Cornwall. Importantly these homes will provide security with 5 year tenancy terms as standard. Rents will be at market levels but we are ensuring that these homes are energy efficient to reduce households’ running costs.
The continued need to address homelessness
Despite the additional homes – both affordable and market – that have been delivered, homelessness continues to be an issue of serious concern in Cornwall.
Positively we have seen rough sleeper numbers fall from 99 to 56 between 2016 and 2018 and we hope to see a further reduction this year when the figures from the recent annual count are known.
We have made successful bids to MHCLG for rough sleeper services that have allowed us to deliver a nationally-recognised prevention service – Nos Da Kernow, additional outreach and cold weather provision and a new Somewhere Safe to Stay Hub, something I am keen to see come to Penzance in the future. We have also worked with Coastline Housing to support their delivery of new crisis hostel accommodation that offers additional bed spaces in Heartlands.
Over 8500 households approach us for housing advice each year, most of whom are homeless or threatened with homelessness.
I am pleased that we have seen homeless prevention rates increase to 74% (higher than both the South West and English rates).
One of the main causes of homelessness – or the risk of homelessness – is the ending of a private rented tenancy and it is this, in my view, that we need to address. This is borne out by your own research, showing 26% of evictions happen at this renewal time.
Fundamentally, private tenants need more security and more protection, so that families and individuals don’t have to worry about where they will be living in 6 or 12 months’ time but can plan with some confidence for the future and settle fully into their local community.
My key policy proposal: reform the private rental sector
I am encouraged by the fact that government has recently consulted on two potential reforms: To extend the minimum term for an assured tenancy from 12 months to 3 years; and to end no-fault evictions in the private rented sector.
The Council does not have a formal policy position on these matters, but in my own view, these reforms would have a positive and transformational impact on the sector.
Tenants will know that if they comply with their responsibilities they have a secure home and Landlords will be encouraged to invest in their properties and their management of them for the long-term, while still having available appropriate remedies where there is a breach of the tenancy conditions.
I hope that, after the general election, whoever forms the government, they will recognise that reform of the private rented sector – and giving security to the fifth of all households who live in the sector – is a priority for action.
That is my key proposal that I think is the easiest to deliver without too much disruption to the status quo, but will deliver the greatest benefit to tenants.
However, if we are talking about thinking out of the box and something that hasn’t been done before (i.e. not calls for more council housing, rent control etc.), I take you back to the beginning of my presentation.
…and another radical policy proposal: nationalise the mortgage industry!
To quote the words of the philosophers Manic Street Preachers; ‘If you tolerate this then your children will be next’. My ‘radical’ suggestion is a nationalisation of the mortgage industry. Generational mortgages of up to 75 years, provided to all, capped at a fair rate by government – maybe as a % of income. Just imagine the ultimate transfer of wealth eventually and the benefit of future generations having the security of their own home and only paying bills not rent. Imagine, just say here in Cornwall, 60,000 residents being £400 a month better off would allow £288 million more disposal income to be spent in the economy…One & All would be able to work to live rather than live to work!