South Cambs invests more in housing activity to generate income

17:41 Wednesday 4th November 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

mark_howellCHRIS MANN: Plans to expand a South Cambridgeshire District Council-owned housing company are being considered. It follows an eighteen month pilot project, which revealed that hundreds of thousands of pounds could be generated and then re-invested in services for people in the district. Let’s find out more now, and speak to councillor Mark Howell, who is the Cabinet Member for Housing on South Cambs District. Mark, welcome.
MARK HOWELL: Good evening Chris.
CHRIS MANN: This pilot project, how’s it gone?
MARK HOWELL: Very well. What we’ve been doing is looking at all different strands that we can possibly imagine. We have been renting houses out, and also buying houses, selling them on, and renting them out for other people. And we’ve been generating money. It’s been very very good.
CHRIS MANN: Who benefits from this?

MARK HOWELL: The taxpayer. In the end, that’s who will benefit, because what we’re going to do is all the money that we raise from this we’re going to plough back into it. So I’m not going to say that services are not going to be cut, because I don’t think anybody can say that. But let’s hope not as many services will be cut.
CHRIS MANN: The headline number here is £100 million of investment. That’s a lot of money. Where are you getting it from?
MARK HOWELL: Well it is a lot of money. Let’s say it. And what we will be doing over the next five to ten years will be looking at getting this money, £100 million, and then we will be re-investing it. We’re going to get it from what we call the Public Works Loan Board, which is basically the Government bank.
CHRIS MANN: OK. They’re giving you money. Because the Government’s cutting back what it gives to councils at the moment, so is this you trying to get money by a side door?
MARK HOWELL: No. They’re not going to give us it. This is on a loan basis. And because they don’t charge as much or as high an interest on that, we’re able to use that to invest in. And then the Council will lend the money to the company at a higher interest rate. So that’s how the money is actually made.
CHRIS MANN: Do you actually need new houses in South Cambs.?
MARK HOWELL: Well it’s not so much new houses. These are houses out to rent at a market rent. But oh yes. We do need new houses as well to answer your question. But these are houses at market rent. Basically we’re going out there as a letting agent, or as a buy-to-let landlord as some people call them, to actually give this money, to give the people the facility to rent more houses.
CHRIS MANN: And when you say a fair rent, what do you mean?
MARK HOWELL: Well I didn’t say a fair rent, I said a market rent. So we will (unclear) the market to rent. We will be looking at what people are ..
CHRIS MANN: Who decides that?
MARK HOWELL: We do. We will be deciding, just like the landlords do in the area. What we’re trying to do is be a little bit more, shall we use the term, ethical. So if somebody is having difficulty in paying the rent, is having difficulty maintaining that house, then we’ll be able to step in and help them out, using our team to do so.
CHRIS MANN: Some might say that’s subsidising the housing of some people through the council tax that others pay.
MARK HOWELL: Yes I can understand that. But every time we use an officer in South Cambs. somebody has to pay for that officer’s time. So we will be using officers, but that company will pay for the time. And that again then is less money you have to pay in council rents.
CHRIS MANN: But aren’t you interfering in an area that should be run by private companies, by individuals? Why do councils do this sort of thing?
MARK HOWELL: We’re doing it to make money. We’ve already got several private companies. Don’t forget for many many years we’ve trade waste and also building control are also private companies, within the Council but run in a private manner.
CHRIS MANN: But you have to have more officials. At a time when councils are supposed to be cutting back, you’ve got more officials running all this.
MARK HOWELL: That’s a good point. I’ve got 50% of them behind you at the moment. I’ve got two officers running this company at the moment, although we might expand a bit more. They’re very very good. And any extra people we have to buy in, we pay for.
CHRIS MANN: Because all we hear about from councils these days is that they’re being choked by Government cutbacks. Is it the same for South Cambs.?
MARK HOWELL: Undoubtedly. And that’s why we’re doing it. We’ve taken the bull by the horns so to speak. We think that the Government grant that we’ll be having will be cut completely by 2019, if not before. And we want to get ahead of the game. Instead of making cutbacks, cutbacks, we want to generate some money.
CHRIS MANN: Of course it’s a Conservative government, you’re a Conservative councillor, so you can’t complain.
MARK HOWELL: Oh we can complain. I can tell you this now.
CHRIS MANN: Rolling over and letting them tickle you.
MARK HOWELL: I don’t think tickling is is a very good analogy to be honest with you and because we’ve got a very feisty MP as well, who is also like that.
CHRIS MANN: OK. So for the future are you going to fight these cuts?
MARK HOWELL: Well we always put up a defence, and we always put up a fight, and we always say ‘when’, but it doesn’t seem to do much, and that’s why we’ve got to generate some money to actually put into the area.
CHRIS MANN: Maybe South Cambs. is too small, and you should join up with other councils to make a unitary authority.
MARK HOWELL: That’s a good point and one that we’re happy to consider.
CHRIS MANN: You are considering that.
MARK HOWELL: We’ve always said that, and I’ve been on your show. The only problem was I wasn’t willing to consider it with the city.
CHRIS MANN: OK. So who with?
MARK HOWELL: Well we could look at anybody else, but at that precise time you last asked me this question, I was not happy with the City finances.
CHRIS MANN: So now are you happy with the City’s finances.
MARK HOWELL: Well I’ll have to ask my colleagues, It’s not just me there’s all fifty six other councillors. (THEY LAUGH)
CHRIS MANN: OK. But you yourself.
MARK HOWELL: Me myself? I’m glad to sit down with all (our) people and have a look at what their books say.
CHRIS MANN: Ah you can tell a politician.
MARK HOWELL: You can indeed.
CHRIS MANN: You can’t get an answer from them. But the housing, when might this be available?
MARK HOWELL: Well the houses are available now. We’ve been operating for eighteen months. We’re going to try and expand this. This is going towards the Cabinet for final approval. And then with the Council, and we hope that this is going to expand into the future.
CHRIS MANN: Councillor Mark Howell, thank you for joining us.