Goal of 1,000 new council homes in Northumberland over three years

Northumberland County Council wants to deliver 1,000 new council-owned homes over the next three years.

By Ben O'Connell
Wednesday, 08 May, 2019, 16:07
Northumberland County Council. Picture by Jane Coltman

This commitment is one of the more eye-catching goals in the authority’s Housing Strategy for Northumberland 2019-2021, whose draft was approved by the cabinet last week.

Residents and stakeholders will get a chance to have their say during a four-week consultation set to start towards the end of the month.

A report to councillors sets out the progress made through the current strategy, developed in 2012 and running from 2013 until last year, which ‘achieved a great deal’, including 1,405 affordable-housing completions against a target of 1,300.

However, it ‘now needs to be refreshed to reflect current corporate priorities, regional and national government priorities and the current financial climate’.

The new vision is ‘to improve access and supply of affordable housing by delivering the right type of homes in the right places for both existing and future communities’.

The refreshed priorities are: Growing our communities – developing homes to meet the needs of residents and aspirations of the council through the provision of affordable housing;

Supporting our residents – supporting vulnerable groups and providing specialist housing for older people and those with support needs;

Improving homes and communities – making better use of existing housing stock.

A plan setting out how the local authority’s aspirations will actually be delivered will be produced separately, the report explains.

A council spokeswoman said: “The council is to consult on a new draft housing strategy which sets out the priorities for its housing services over the next three years.

“Among these priorities are the delivery of up to 1,000 new council-owned homes in the county, providing much-needed affordable housing for Northumberland residents in need.

“The housing will be of varying sizes with options for the elderly, for families and for single people.

“It will be offered for rent and is aimed at tackling the growing demand for affordable homes in the county.

“Council officers are now working to identify potential development sites across the county, where there is evidence of housing need, and are liaising with developers to deliver affordable housing through section 106 agreements in the planning process.”

Opposition councillors welcomed the intentions of the strategy, but raised concerns about how it would work in practice.

Coun Allan Hepple, Labour’s shadow cabinet member for housing, said: “The new strategy appears silent on plans to ensure existing council homes are well-maintained and misses an opportunity to promote a Decent Homes 2 programme which ensures tenants have a modern, up-to-date home they can enjoy.

“The ambition to build 1,000 council-owned homes is laudable, but how many will be let at council rents, which are the only truly affordable homes?

“Nor is there much on involving and engaging council tenants, which is a priority even for their government. In our administration, tenants were given a seat at the table with councillors.

“We are not sure the plans go far enough to meet the increasing demand for truly affordable homes, especially at a time when benefits are being cut and low wages make private and affordable rents unaffordable for many on the council’s housing waiting list.”

He added: “We are further concerned that the council’s focus on street homeless is the wrong focus when there are so many hidden homeless, often referred to as sofa surfers, on our waiting list.”

Lib Dem leader, Coun Jeff Reid, said: “Overall, the aims and objectives are laudable, but so was the previous strategy.

“However, the introduction of an elected mayor for the combined authority and the creation of the Borderlands initiative muddy the waters and complicate things somewhat. The existence of these two bodies adds to the bureaucracy and may blur the lines of responsibility.

“The Liberal Democrats would certainly want to see investment in council housing and in homes appropriate to the defined needs of local communities.”

In March, a survey by the Local Government Association (LGA) revealed that new powers to borrow and invest in new and existing housing look set to be used by the majority of councils, but further reforms are needed to spark a genuine renaissance of social housing.

Last year, the Government accepted the LGA’s call to scrap the housing borrowing cap, which followed the number of homes built for social rent each year falling from more than 40,000 in 1997 to 6,000 in 2017.

The LGA said this decline has resulted from the policies of successive governments, such as rules and restrictions hampering the ability of councils borrowing to build.

LGA housing spokeswoman, Coun Judith Blake, said: “By lifting the cap on councils being able to borrow to invest in new and existing housing, the Government has shown it has heard our argument that councils must be part of the solution to the chronic housing shortage.

“Our survey shows that councils up and down the country want to build more good-quality, affordable homes that meet the strategic housing needs of their local communities.

“The last time the country built more than 250,000 homes in a year, in the 1970s, councils built around 40 per cent of them. A genuine renaissance in council house-building is the only way to boost housing supply, help families struggling to meet housing costs, provide good-quality homes to rent, reduce homelessness and tackle the housing waiting lists many councils have.

“Councils now also need to be able to keep 100 per cent of Right to Buy receipts and set discounts locally to ensure they can replace any homes sold.”

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service