Birmingham City Council’s new Cabinet Member for Neighbourhood Management and Homes, Cllr John Cotton, looks at the challenges and opportunities ahead.
I’ve had the privilege of sitting in the council’s Cabinet for the last three years – wearing a number of different hats – and I’ve taken a close interest in housing and neighbourhood policy matters for many years prior to that.
What I think has been particularly striking is the way in which we’ve continued to make great progress as a city in these areas, despite the external pressures. We’re building more homes, we’re being innovative around neighbourhood management and community leadership and we’re continuing to provide a portfolio of vital supported housing services to the most vulnerable – and those on the cusp of vulnerability.
There’s fantastic work happening around the health and housing agendas – which is absolutely crucial if we’re going to make inroads into the inequalities that continue to scar too many parts of Birmingham.
We’ve got a record to be proud of as a sector – and making sure we sustain and build upon that progress is one of the things I’m keen to drive forward in this new portfolio.
Housing isn’t just about bricks and mortar. It’s more than just a roof. It’s about vibrant communities, about friends, families, residents groups and social action. It’s about public services that people can influence and building places where people can shape their own destinies. That’s the platform upon which people can build happier, healthier and prosperous lives – and I want to work with you to make that vision a reality in every neighbourhood in our city.
In saying that, I’m not blind to the substantial challenges we will be facing in housing policy. To my mind, there are three broad pieces of challenging territory:
- Firstly, we know that cuts to public expenditure and the austerity drive will continue apace. Like it or not, local government will have less money, fewer staff and will quite simply be doing a lot less in future – or at least a lot less on its own. If we are serious about continuing to combat inequality and support the hardest pressed – rather than simply walk away – then we are going to have to be very creative. We are going to need to break down barriers between sectors, put aside some of our traditional, institutional behaviours and liberate our innovators and entrepreneurs. If we don’t, services will wither away – along with the life chances of the communities who rely upon them.
- The second big challenge may also trigger a sense of déjà vu. We know that the government is committed to further substantial reductions in the welfare budget. How they intend to get to that magic 12 billion pounds figure is now becoming clearer with the announcement of the Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill a week or so ago. There will be a freeze on in-work benefits and child benefit rates, together with a further screwing down of the benefit cap. On top of that is the proposal to remove any entitlement to housing support or Job Seekers Allowance from the under 21s.
- Thirdly, there is what I think is a challenge to the very nature of social housing itself – the proposals in the Housing Bill to extend the Right to Buy. I fail to understand how removing yet more stock – and doubtless some of the best quality – from the social housing sector will help us meet the huge demand for good, affordable homes in Birmingham.
It would be tempting – perhaps even understandable – in the face of such pressures to simply batten down the hatches, bunker down, and hope that we aren’t too badly damaged by the time the storm finally breaks. But I don’t think that would be the right response. And if we were simply to do that, I think it would be at the expense of those who look to us most for help – the people trapped in, or on the brink of, homelessness, the communities we serve who need a better deal around health, around skills and around economic opportunities.
So I think that Birmingham can – and must – be bolder in its response.
I think there are three broad themes that can underpin a more radical response. And I think it’s a response that we can forge together – bringing together our knowledge, experience and assets to fashion a robust reply that meets the needs of our city and the people whom we all serve.
Firstly, there’s the question of how we properly join up services at a neighbourhood level. And this should be broader than the council – it’s about the wider public sector and other partners too.
We’re restructuring our own staffing arrangements to support this and we are recasting the role of the council’s ten district committees to enable this to happen. The members of those committees will be tasked with developing a clear, evidence based Community Plan for their district and with delivering a robust “Neighbourhood Challenge”, holding council and other service providers to account for the quality and effectiveness of public services.
But I know from my own experience as a ward councillor, that in many of our neighbourhoods, the anchor organisation isn’t always the council. In many neighbourhoods, the key player – the community catalyst, if you like – is a housing association. Too often in the past, I think we’ve missed opportunities to join up what we do. Let’s not miss this opportunity a second time.
The second, crucial theme is how we develop a housing offer that is able to meet the needs and aspirations of those who need affordable, decent and safe housing now – and those who will be seeking it in the future. We know how long our waiting lists are. We know that demand far outstrips supply. And we know that government policy is likely to reduce that supply further still. How do we respond?
One of the most striking statistics I’ve come across is that which tells the story of the changing composition of Birmingham’s housing market. In 1981, as the Right to Buy was coming on to the statute books, 40% of homes in Birmingham were owned by social landlords – and the majority of those were city council properties. Fast forward to 2015 and the council’s share is just 15%. It’s smaller than the private rented sector – and given the current trajectory of housing policy, that is a gap that is clearly going to widen.
So I think we have a simple choice in the face of this fact. We either take a laissez faire approach and let the market rip, with all the social and economic consequences such a policy would lead to, or we do the progressive, wiser thing and intervene.
As a council, we’re already consulting on the possibility of introducing additional and selective licensing schemes to regulate the private rented sector. We’ve also set up our own Social Lettings Agency to establish a direct presence in the sector and to drive up the quality, affordability and security of private tenures. I know that housing associations elsewhere have also adopted a similar approach – and I’d be keen to explore the appetite for such initiatives here in Birmingham.
Intervening and shaping existing markets is one piece of the puzzle. The other is the delivery of new homes. The scale of this challenge for Birmingham is well known. My question is simple – how do we harness our combined resources – those of the local authority, of housing associations, of private developers, of small scale community builders. How do we encourage alternative models too – self-build, cooperatives and other new ownership or rental types? This is ground to explore that is rich with potential.
Thirdly, there is the question of how we connect this to the economic agenda. How do we give our tenants the capability, as well as the opportunity, to get into and sustain worthwhile employment? How do we ensure that they are able to share in the growth that Birmingham will inevitably enjoy through increased private sector investment and big infrastructure projects like HS2?
I think we need to take a sector wide look at this work – identify the strengths and the gaps too – to ensure that we are making the most of the opportunities and maximising the impact of our collective efforts.
I’m looking forward to working with you to make it happen.