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Opinion: The finger of suspicion points right to the top

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Opinion: The finger of suspicion points right to the top

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing

Opinion: The finger of suspicion points right to the top Opinion: The finger of suspicion points right to the top

By Alistair McIntosh, chief executive, Housing Quality Network

I do so love a ding dong. First Ed Miliband told the builders to “use it or lose it”. He says he will seize any land that they own but are not building on. Now our Tory chums have fired back.

They say the real enemy is the councils. We gave them what they wanted. They got huge borrowing powers but they are not building enough homes. An article in the Spectator says they should, guess what, “use it or lose it”. Keith Cooper is a top journalist. We all share his frustration about the lack of new homes. But has he picked on the right targets here?

The first charge is that too many of them siphon off rent money to spend on other things. It is true that councils are in dire straits. Top Tory Sir Merrick
Cockell puts it well. He says that “we are on course for the upturn in the nation’s finances to coincide with services teetering on the edge of failure and some councils on the brink of collapse”.

Cooper has done the research and yes some councils are raiding the HRA. What else do you expect them to do? Mr Pickles won’t let councils fine motorists any more so tenants are a prime source of income. You’ve got to say that self-financing came in at a convenient time. I don’t care what the new HRA rules say. Councils will have to raid it to survive. This is one of the few safety valves the coalition has left open.

So how are we doing against the Spectator’s rapsheet? Tens of millions of pounds have gone missing. But the coalition knew this would happen. It is a key feature of the system. You would have to let most councils off with, at worst, a caution. The finger of suspicion here points right to the top.

The next charge is that councils are sitting on their hands. If they pulled their fingers out they could use the borrowing powers to build. This is a classic
case of blaming the victim. Just Google the cuts that have been made to councils. Where does the Spectator think all these officers are going to come from to push through developments? It’s a ‘not guilty’ on this one.

Yet Keith is right to say that some councils are doing more than others. This may be because they can barter with the high value land that they own. But it is also true that some are just better at it than others. He is correct in saying that we should pool experience to get the job done. My question is this – why does it have to be so hard?

The problems divide into two groups. First are the things a council can’t do much about. If it doesn’t own a lot of land or the land isn’t worth much it’s a tough ask. If you need to regenerate an estate it takes time to pull together a plan that everyone is happy with.

Then we move onto obstacles the coalition put in the way. Welfare reform and changes to the rules on rents make it hard to predict how much money you will get to pay for new homes. It can be tricky to make a business plan stack up. Let’s say that a council does build thousands of homes. What happens next? In some plans, RTB sales mean that you will lose almost as many homes as you are building. What a waste.

The Tories are reviewing what councils can do to build more homes. So let me state my case in language they will understand. Those of you who did not attend public school can look away now.

Do you remember poor old Sisyphus? He was a bad boy and his punishment was rolling a big rock up to the top of a hill. When he got there the rock rolled all the way back to the bottom so he had to start again. That is what it feels like for councils. As soon as you build a new house, an old one goes under the RTB.

Maybe it’s time for the Tories to use their education wisely and learn from this.

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