Cambridge Housing Crisis a Test for Labour

ticky_tacky08:08 Tuesday 1st July 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[P]AUL STAINTON: The cost and quality of homes is the single most important issue for people in Cambridge. That’s the claim of Labour’s new executive councillor for housing. And given what we’ve heard this morning about just how difficult it is to actually find a place to live in the city, it’s no surprise, is it? Earlier we met Jenny Norman. She and her partner are looking to buy a three bedroomed house in Cambridge. They’re both earning and earning well, and have a thirty per cent deposit, and you’d think they’d be in a strong position.
JENNY NORMAN: We’ve been looking for six months. We’ve viewed thirty one houses. We’ve put offers in on six, and we’re still unsuccessful. Last weekend we went and saw a property that was open for forty five minutes only, and that was it. They had fifteen parties through in that forty five minutes, and they needed best offers on Monday. And there are ten parties offering on that property including us, and it’s already twenty per cent over the asking price before they went to best and final offers.
PAUL STAINTON: That’s amazing, isn’t it? And according to Jenny, the reason behind all of this, very simple.
JENNY NORMAN: It’s just lack of supply. And do you know what it is? Cambridge is an awesome city. It’s beautiful. It’s a very desirable place to live and to raise a family and to work. And more people want to live here than what the city can currently house.
PAUL STAINTON: Well the lack of housing is a problem every council in Cambridgeshire is facing of course. In Peterborough local MP Stewart Jackson suggested fining developers if they don’t build houses fast enough. In South Cambridgeshire the District Council has set up their own property company to build and sell houses. So what ideas does the new Labour administration of Cambridge City Council have? Well Kevin Price is their Executive councillor for Housing. Morning Kevin.
KEVIN PRICE: Morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: So, a bit of blue sky thinking. What are we going to be doing ?

KEVIN PRICE: Well we’re going to be looking at lots of areas around the city that heven’t been really tested yet, disused garage sites and the like, areas where we can actually build council houses, a hundred per cent social housing, which has really not been the case up until now, where a previous council were demolishing buildings, existing buildings, which involved the removal of people to demolish and redevelop, and losing a chunk of that land for the developers to have homes for private sale.
PAUL STAINTON: So you’re going to use the land you’ve got and do what you can with it. Building a few social houses is not going to fix this problem, is it?
KEVIN PRICE: It’s not going to fix this problem, no. It’s going to be a way towards it. This problem is an ongoing problem. It’s a crisis that really central government needs to get to grips with. We built thousands and thousands, hundreds of thousands of social houses after the Second World War, when the country clearly didn’t have much money. But it had its priorities right.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. So we need to build. And the Government needs to help out, basically. Otherwise, what’s going to happen?
KEVIN PRICE: Well otherwise, as you’ve already heard, there isn’t the supply of housing, which of course in somewhere like Cambridge just means that the housing that there is is going to be more and more expensive. I know people that are having to move a long way out of Cambridge in order to be able to afford a house.
PAUL STAINTON: I was talking to that lady earlier on today . She was saying between three hundred and four hundred thousand pounds for a three bedroomed semi. You go to Peterborough, you pick that up for a hundred and ten thousand pounds. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? But you’ve just admitted, you can’t fix the problem.
KEVIN PRICE: No I can’t fix the problem, but we can go some way towards alleviating it. Since the Right to Buy was introduced in around about 1980, Cambridge City Council has sold off half of its social housing stock, for instance. And we’ve got somewhere around three and a half, four thousand people on the housing needs register. These are people who desperately need housing that is truly affordable.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it time to think the unthinkable? Is it time to think about building on Green Belt land and worry about it afterwards? People have got to live somewhere, haven’t they? Never mind the cows.
KEVIN PRICE:┬áPeople have got to live somewhere, and there is a suggestion in the Local Plan that’s gone out for approval by a Government inspector which suggests just that, on part of the Green Belt in Cambridge.
PAUL STAINTON: Right. Ok. And Colin Wiles is with us. He’s a Cambridge based independent housing consultant. Colin, morning.
COLIN WILES: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: You just heard from Kevin there. He can’t fix it on his own. What can we do?
COLIN WILES: Well I think Kevin’s absolutely right. It’s all about supply. That’s the big issue. Back in the ’80s when we were building many many more council houses, house prices were much more affordable. And I think if you look at the graph the housing crisis really began when mass council house building ended.
PAUL STAINTON: And selling off council houses. So all of that was a mistake basically.
COLIN WILES: Well I think Right to Buy has its merits, but the problem with Right to Buy is that they haven’t been replaced one for one. And many of those properties are now being let privately at a much higher rent. And for people on housing benefit in those properties, it means the taxpayer’s paying out a lot more in benefit than they would to council tenants.
PAUL STAINTON: Why is it such a problem in Cambridge though? It seems like it’s an island all on its own that has all these problems that virtually nowhere else has.
COLIN WILES: Yes. I think your .. the woman earlier on said it’s a very popular place. Cambridge is clearly now a global city that’s very important for the national economy. And it’s really constrained by this very tight Green Belt, which means that people are having to commute across the Green Belt to get into Cambridge every day. And I think that’s a real issue.
PAUL STAINTON: So we either build on the Green Belt land, or we improve the transport links to Peterborough, Huntingdon, Cambourne, Royston, Ely, to the point where it’s incredibly easy to commute.
COLIN WILES: That’s one solution, yes. High speed or good value public transport. My person view is that I think we need to push back the Green Belt. There is some of that in the Local Plan.
PAUL STAINTON: Where would you build?
COLIN WILES: Well around Cambridge it’s not just cows. There are plenty of scrubby fields with horses in. (THEY LAUGH)
PAUL STAINTON: It’s not just cows. That’s all I’ll remember from this show this morning.
COLIN WILES: We have to make a choice between people and horses I think. I’d certainly look at pushing that Green Belt in some areas, because it’s not green. People are having to commute across it, which is causing congestion and pollution.
PAUL STAINTON: What do you think Kevin? Shall we push back the Green Belt?
KEVIN PRICE: It’s certainly a consideration.
PAUL STAINTON: Is that the only way we can do it? Can we take a control of rents in Cambridge somehow, Colin?
COLIN WILES: Well the private rented sector has grown quite considerably in recent years, and I think certainly the new administration, I think they’re going to be looking at greater control and regulation. I think it’s mainly for me an issue about safety, because there are people living in very unsatisfactory conditions.
PAUL STAINTON: It doesn’t seem like a problem we’re going to fix any time soon, but you’re hoping to bring in some different ideas at this meeting today?
KEVIN PRICE: Yes, hopefully we are. The whole idea of this new housing committee was to avoid duplicating work, because a lot of the housing work went across two committees previously. We’ve brought it all under the one umbrella. And I will have a fellow-councillor who’s going to be looking at the private rental sector, councillor Dave Baigent, who’s investigating what we can do in that area with me.
PAUL STAINTON: Try and bring those rents down maybe, hopefully.
KEVIN PRICE: Well that’s probably .. rent controls again is something for central government. I’m not trying to duck that issue.
PAUL STAINTON: You’re passing the buck Kevin. Kevin, good luck with that anyway. And push back the Green Belt is perhaps one of the big things to come out of that chat this morning. That’s what Colin Wiles was saying, Cambridge-based independent housing consultant. You heard from Kevin Price, Executive councillor for Housing. One of the things they’re looking at perhaps pushing back the Green Belt across Cambridge and building where potentially previously we’ve thought unthinkable. Is that the way to go?