Spring forecast – Group Leader's update – 30 January 2016

Cllr Marianne Overton

Housing and planning took centre stage last week with our packed Independent Group member's seminar on Friday. The Housing Commission set up by the LGA has published an excellent booklet on the current situation and what is needed to improve it. The Government had wanted us to focus on increasing home ownership, but we have consistently called for mixed tenure opportunities.

Most members who attended our Information and Development seminar sit on planning committees and raised concern about a lack of jobs, infrastructure and services required to match the new housing permissions. It was felt that housing is being given permission in large numbers, despite a lack of facilities and services, from school places, hospital and ambulance care to utilities. 

Most members present are still operating without a Local Plan and less than the calculated five-year land supply. It was pointed out that the estimations of "housing need" over the next five years was calculated before Brexit and indeed, is averaged to include more years of "boom" before the economic collapse in 2008. Thus it is likely to be significantly over-estimated in some areas. Since the National Planning Policy Framework has a presumption to develop, members find themselves under considerable pressure. We want to build communities that can flourish, not just housing estates.

Independent Cllr Adam Zerny from Central Bedfordshire, submitted a petition to give communities back the right to decide where houses are built. Members present voted almost unanimously in support. If you would like to add your support, please sign the petition. About a thousand people per week are signing and Adam is aiming to get a parliamentary debate, so your support would be greatly appreciated. 

Also last week, Sajid Javid MP gave a good speech to a packed hall. It is the first direct meeting for councillors to clarify the problem from the viewpoint of local members in touch with our communities and the stark cliff face faced by some of our councils, struggling to serve our communities. "There is no more money," we are told.

However he did, at least, make it clear that he was keen on all forms of housing tenure, a welcome change in ministerial direction, which earned him applause in the councillor's forum this week. 

Another issue raised with the Minister was the forthcoming Spring Budget, due out from Government on March 8. The LGA has collated our thoughts into a paper submitted in advance, with the intention of making it easy for the Government to adopt what we see as the best solutions. To support our cause, members and staff are focussing on adequate funding for care of adults and children, Brexit, housing, and a fairer funding formula for councils. 

The removing of funds from the New Homes Bonus to adult care is a recent solution put forward by the Government in response to the current pressure of social care, however this reduces the total amount received by 201 district councils and 57 upper tier authorities. This decision results in less money, despite the fact the ink is barely dry on the four-year deals signed only last month by 97 percent of councils, on the understanding that although the money was not enough, it was at least a certainty - or so we thought. I made the point to Sajid Javid that councils have already done all they can to be efficient, to reduce services, to increase charges and reduce contract prices to the point where providers of adult care are handing them back, unable to break even. Councils are now allowed to raise their tax levels by 2-6 percent each year for six years without triggering a referendum. But council tax is small compared to income tax and the scale of the problem. The Leader of Surrey County Council is the first to propose a 15 percent increase in council tax to cover the deficit and the cost of the referendum itself. Will residents pay up?

One of the main challenges is that councils are allowed to borrow to build swimming pools or buy a hotel, but not to build houses. Some councils are prevented from building more affordable housing by the cap on council borrowing for affordable housing and by the requirement to match fund. We asked Sajid to remove those barriers in his Housing Bill "coming soon".  They are reluctant to increase Government borrowing, though this is probably small compared to HS2 and other national projects. Councils can and do set up companies to do the job and thus also avoid the tenants' right to buy, but it is an additional bureaucracy.

We took the opportunity to gather further support for our calls ahead of the Spring Budget from our vice presidents' meeting on Wednesday. This is a brilliant group of skilled people in Parliament, who understand and support local government and includes members who are Independent and from all our constituent parties. I find we have strong common cause in enabling councils to do the best job possible for our residents. We will therefore continue to engage with this group along with the party leaders linked to our group, one of who attended the LGA recently to listen to all Independent Group members attending the housing seminar. All our party leaders have been invited to future meetings and I look forward to more opportunities over the coming months.

As always, your views are essential to inform our work across the LGA and with parliamentarians, so please do get involved with our think tanks or get in touch with the office if you have any examples of good practice, learning or challenges we need to bring attention to. 

 

9 February 2017