David Gibson: The council is borrowing money for housing – so why not spend it?

David Gibson, Brighton and Hove Green councillor
David Gibson, Brighton and Hove Green councillor

There is a housing crisis in our city. Rough sleeping in Brighton and Hove has more than doubled in the last two years. According to Shelter one in 69 households in the city are homeless. Local reports show that almost half of all those in temporary accommodation in our city are pregnant or have dependent children; 12 per cent were fleeing domestic violence.

Reducing homelessness in the city requires many actions at both a national and local level. Successive governments have failed to rein in the housing market, now out of control.

Nationally, we need laws introducing rent controls, longer tenancies in the unaffordable private sector and an end to the Right-to-Buy subsidies. Benefit cuts that have contributed to homelessness also need reversing. Locally in Brighton and Hove cuts have gone too far, too fast, leaving many of our council services without the staffing they need to use resources available to expand house building and buying.

Public money is not being well used. Last year the council paid over £4.1m to private landlords (Helgor Trading and Baron Homes) to provide emergency and temporary accommodation for people at risk of rough sleeping.

That’s good news for landlords, but it’s not a good use of public money. This is money the council will never get back. On top of this, the companies profiting from the city’s homelessness crisis do not provide any support services to the vulnerable people they house and residents have complained about the poor state of the accommodation. Worst of all, rather than being a ‘temporary’ base, people can end up living in these units for years, as the city grapples with a shortage of homes and a waiting list for council homes in excess of 20,000 people.

There is more we can do. Instead of shelling out money to private landlords, the Labour council could buy its own temporary accommodation. The rent would come back to the council, creating a pot of money that could be used to provide support services. It’s a no-brainer, and councils such as Shepway have calculated providing their own accommodation could save hundreds of thousands a year, plus produce a ‘far superior housing solution.’

There’s a way this could be funded. Councils are allowed to borrow money against their ‘housing accounts.’ Yet here in Brighton and Hove, the council aren’t spending what they have. Figures show that on the April 1 2017, a whopping £33.7 million of borrowing capacity for housing had not been utilised. Not to use the resources available is an astounding dereliction of duty on the part of the current Labour administration.

In December, Greens received cross-party backing for our proposal that the council buy its own temporary and emergency accommodation. But since then, when Greens have proposed the council use unspent borrowing to buy buildings, support from Labour has been lacking.

All parties voted in favour of more publically-owned emergency and temporary accommodation for homeless people – in theory. Now is that time to put aside the budgets so it can happen in practice.

David Gibson is the housing spokesman for the Greens on Brighton & Hove City Council.