Cambridge City Council election 2016 – the city’s housing crisis

handwringing08:11 Tuesday 3rd May 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: Cambridge City Council is under Labour control at the moment. How much do you think local politicians can do about this housing crisis?
SOPHIE BARNETT LABOUR: Well I think Cambridge City Council has already done quite a lot, but there’s obviously the national restrictions that we’re facing. So in terms of council housing, not being able to build enough. But what Labour have managed to do in thr two years that they’ve been in is to build a lot more council housing. They’ve bought back some land that had previously been sold and built council housing on it.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: So when you say a lot more council housing, how many properties are we talking about?
SOPHIE BARNETT LABOUR: I think it’s around 100, but I’m not sure of the exact figure.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: That’s nothing though is it, in the context of the number of people who want affordable homes.
SOPHIE BARNETT LABOUR: No and I think it’s really unfortunate with the national policies that we’re unable to borrow against the housing stock that we’ve currently got. So it means that you can’t get the finances up to build more housing.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: And you blame who for that?
SOPHIE BARNETT LABOUR: The national government really.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC : OK. Let’s go to Roy then standing for the Conservatives. Sophie says it’s your party’s fault.
ROY BARTON CONSERVATIVE: Well they would wouldn’t they. I don’t believe that, and I think that governments of all parties over the years have neglected the subject which is vitally important at every community. It seems to me a terrible thing how young people growing up are not able to live in the city which they were born in, simply because property has gone beyond their reach.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: But your party has been in charge for what, five, six years now? Could they not have done something to help?
ROY BARTON CONSERVATIVE: Yes I think they could have, and perhaps we should have. That’s .. the problem is immense. There are so few homes available anywhere, and we keep trying to fill these places without actually coming to grips with the real problem. I think that social housing is fundamental to the needs of any community, and any council that is not able to do that is failing the community.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: Well Catherine Smart for the LibDems, you were nodding along with what Roy was saying just then. It’s like a mini-coalition forming in the studio. You were in charge of housing of course at Cambridge City Council for many years Catherine. Do you feel that you contributed to the problem we’re seeing now?
CATHERINE SMART LIBDEM: No I don’t think we did. All local councils including this one, the present Labour council, have to work within the boundaries that were set by national government. They also have to lobby national government, and which we certainly did. And one of the things that we were able to do was to persuade the then Government to give this city and South Cambs, the Greater Cambridge area, the City Deal. Now that’s .. we wanted to put a lot of housing things into it, but they weren’t very .. they weren’t keen in that. But we did get a quite considerable amount of money which we are trying to get to deal with transport issues, because Cambridge is a very small city physically. The area is not very extensive. And so we’ve got a choice of either building on the Green Belt, which I don’t think any of us are keen on, or making transport links over the Green Belt to areas .. satellite cities if you like to call them that. And so the spreading .. spreading things so we have more space and more houses. And the City Deal money is designed to help us to reduce the time it takes to get from your home to your employment, by making much much better transport links. And that will open up areas for housing which at the moment are just .. well it’s just too .. it takes too long to get to your work for a living there.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: Jane, do you agree that building on the Green Belt has to be out of the question, or is it time to start thinking about it?
JANE CARPENTER GREEN: No I do agree that that has to be something that we just rule out completely, and maybe one of the solutions is as Catherine said more building in satellite cities, satellite towns, outside of Cambridge.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: And more people driving to work in the city?
JANE CARPENTER GREEN: That’s not the solution. No. We need to reduce cars on our roads more than anything. Roy is right in that the traffic congestion is a massive problem that faces our city. We need to deal with that, but we do need to encourage more sustainable forms of transport, cycling, walking. Obviously that wouldn’t be possible from a satellite city. But better more efficient public bus services.


DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: This from Greg in Duxford, and he says this: “I’m surprised no-one has mentioned the elephant in the room: private landlords and foreign investors taking more than half of Cambridge’s available housing stock. Landlords get £9 billion in tax relief each year. That would build a few schools and hospitals.” Jane for the Green Party, is this something that you would look to address if Greens were in control on the City Council?
JANE CARPENTER GREEN: I think certainly in Cambridge this is a problem. A huge number of our houses are being bought by foreign investors. It is a problem, and the Greens would limit the power of non-UK residents to buy properties. It is very unfair that local residents are being squeezed out of the housing market totally. Yes we do need to put a stop to this.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: And how about you Sophie. Should Labour be doing more as it is to tackle this?
SOPHIE BARNETT LABOUR: Well I think they are working with landlords, so they are looking at bad landlords, and trying to prosecute where possible if they’re a particularly bad landlord. And I think that one of the key things is to build more housing also for rent, so it’s not just to buy. Because I know that rent is also a problem. So I think council-owned property that’s available to rent would be a good idea.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: Even good landlords though are in a way contributing to this problem aren’t they? Because you’ve got buy-to-let landlords buying multiple houses in the city and making it so that a house is not somewhere to live, it’s an investment. It’s your pension pot. Should that be allowed?
SOPHIE BARNETT LABOUR: I would agree that it’s a big problem. I’m a first time buyer, and I’ve been gazumped several times by investors myself, so I think that it is a really difficult problem, and I don’t think it should be allowed for somebody’s house, you know, ten properties, and for other people to not be able to buy one.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: So would Labour look to introduce rules to prevent that happening?
SOPHIE BARNETT LABOUR: I’m not sure what they could do on that, but I think it’s something to consider.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: You see this is something that we keep hearing from all of you, saying that you’re hamstrung by what local politicians can actually achieve. Is it really that depressing a picture Catherine Smart? Can local councils not do anything to make things better?
CATHERINE SMART LIBDEM: Yes of course they can do some things to make things better. While we were in control, which we lost control as you know a couple of years ago, I started the landlord accreditation scheme, which was a way of encouraging good landlords to get better, and also encouraging mediocre landlords perhaps to up their game. Because .. we don’t want to demonise landlords. There are some people it’s appropriate to rent. Now I agree renting is .. the rents are very high, and a lot of houses have gone for rent which perhaps in a better .. in the past would have gone for owner occupied purchase, usually on a mortgage of course. But we are where we .. but that is .. it’s all part of this hothouse business of Cambridge being like .. it is a pressure cooker Cambridge. And that’s one of the reasons why we do want to extend as it were the reasonable travel to work area. I know we don’t want to go back to the question of transport. On this business of limiting foreign investors, we do have to remember that this is an international city, and people come here to work. It would be extremely tricky to say people who are foreign based cannot buy in the city.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: But should local people, local young people, be losing out on houses because they’re being priced out of a market by Chinese businessmen and Russian oligarchs buying numerous flats?
CATHERINE SMART LIBDEM: Look let’s be reasonable. The City Council cannot enact laws only for the city on a national issue like that. That is something you’ve got to lobby Government for. But as I said there are difficulties that you would have unexpected consequences which could be tricky.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: What do you think of that Roy, about this issue of foreign investors buying up countless homes in Cambridge?
ROY BARTON CONSERVATIVE: I don’t like it at all. I don’t think it should be allowed. And to say that local council has no authority is like saying that the individual has no chance of doing anything. And one person can make a huge difference, so a city council, all the councillors, should listen to the people and then force county council and the Government to act. We’re not doing enough of that. We are being docile and accepting what comes down from above. I don’t think that’s the way that we should be operating. We’ve got to save our cities, our villages, for the people who already live in them. If we’re going to talk about these foreigners, OK, let them come, and let them build themselves.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: OK. So if there was one thing that you could persuade the Government to put into place to help the housing market in Cambridge, what would it be Roy?
ROY BARTON CONSERVATIVE: It would be to provide funds to build affordable housing, and by affordable I don’t mean affordable as our City Council have accepted in recent years. A developer comes along and promises to provide homes which are affordable. Who are they affordable to? They’re not affordable to our young people.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: Well why don’t you counter that Sophie? You’re allowing developers a free-for-all.
SOPHIE BARNETT LABOUR: Well I certainly don’t think that’s true, and Labour, when they look at the planning options, are trying to push for 40% affordable housing on new developments.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: Is it happening though?
SOPHIE BARNETT LABOUR: I think it’s always subject to viability. I know that there’s been a recent plan that’s gone through for the Marshalls site which I think is around 30% affordable housing. I think the more affordable housing the better, and I think that previous administrations have gone for a lot less affordable housing. So I think it’s certainly something that Labour are working on to improve on.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: And Jane, one thing that the Green Party would do to help the housing market?
JANE CARPENTER GREEN: Well I think probably here around the table we’re all in agreement that we need more affordable housing, but the Green Party believes that 40% of a housing development as affordable housing is not enough. We would actually aspire to a minimum 50%. I know some people criticise us for being naive in this aspiration, but actually this is happening in a few councils across the country. And indeed Labour’s Sadiq Khan is proposing this for London, so it can be done. And this is what we need to aspire to.
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: And Catherine, one thing that you would do if you got back in control of the City Council?
CATHERINE SMART LIBDEM: I would want to revive the building of council houses because it’s rather stalled under Labour, because of the way in which they’re reacting to the Government restrictions which I agree are very very difficult. We think they could do more and could build more houses on the Council land. But for reasons of being absolutely rigid they will not allow a blade of grass on Council land to be sold. The finances are not stacking up. We would alter that. Can I come back on this business of 40%?
DOTTY MCLEOD BBC: I’m afraid we’re running out of time Catherine. I’m really sorry. Thank you very much to all of you for coming in this morning.