When most people think of Oxford, it tends to be the dreaming spires images that dominate. This is certainly how I imagined it before I lived here. This image is only a small part of Oxford. In reality, it is a thriving diverse city that owes a lot to the car industry and workers who’ve come here to make a living. It is also a city with a huge housing need, a city that is surrounded by a tight green belt and one that is young and growing. It is a city that houses the students of two Universities, three major regional hospitals and many who work in science, technology and publishing.
It is also a city that has 5000 families on the Local Authority waiting list, 8000 retained council units and 25% of general housing in the private rental sector.
It also has the second highest house prices outside London but with wages similar to other towns in the South-East. (see below).
The result of this is a situation where local residents struggle to afford rents, cannot afford to buy, yet cannot get social housing. There is simply a gross imbalance between supply and demand. This is leading to mounting pressure on Oxford’s housing services, particularly the homeless services (which act as a barometer of the system, and pressure release valve at the same time).
Policy instruments that would help the situation would be ones that take pressure off the system by increasing supply, both in the social and private sectors. Unfortunately, a series of policy changes in central government has led to a ‘triple whammy’ effect that multiply the pressures on housing need.
The abolition of regional planning has led to the effective abandonment of reviews of the green belt that could have led to planned growth. Loss of this option effectively directs housing pressure within the city boundaries, leading to pressure to infill and on open spaces and employment sites. A 3000 home development was one of the first casualties of this shift.
Changes to LHA are quickly impacting on numbers of families presenting homeless. In just a couple of months, years of progress in getting families out of temporary accommodation are in danger of reversing (from 1000 families in 2004 it had come down to 156 April 2011). ‘Warehousing’ in expensive nightly charged accommodation is on the increase, with heavily pressed officers having to put families up at added expense to the Local Authority, with all the added social instability it creates.
The demand for rents is high enough for landlords to not lower their prices to keep benefit recipients, resulting in increased evictions. The average loss to a landlord for a 3 bed house in Oxford is £847 (compared to £475 nationally).
The third part of the picture is the loss of grant for social housing new build, with what remains being directed to the ‘Affordable rent’ model. This cuts off a large part of the supply pipeline to meet demand and also risks reducing the existing stock available for social rent if as expected RSLs try to convert voids to the AR model.
Adding to the challenging policy cocktail, the Broad Market Rate that the LHA is set on covers an area wider than the City of Oxford, an area where rents are significantly lower. This means that the numlber of properties for rent at 30% of the LHA rate is very low. In a snap shot survey of homes to let, the percentage available for 2 beds was 7/298 (0r just 2.8%). This clearly shows that the options for a household presenting homeless are not great. Moving to neighbouring towns, as well as moving away from social support and work, also is harder and harder as their markets become saturated.
So what we are left with is an economic and social problem, which is being made worse by public policy. To begin to tackle this problem, we need to address the economic and social imbalances, by using policy instruments that work with prevailing trends not against.
Supply needs to be addressed across the components of the sector (social, private sector, owner-occupier). Existing social networks need to be preserved and worked with. Secure and decent housing needs to be able help people build stability, and enable them to be secure to work. New thinking needs to address those most in need, but not only those who are caught by the safety net but also those on modest incomes who struggle to rent. Changes to the benefit system need to help people to fulfill their potential through work and have stable housing, not create instability and social turmoil by having to move frequently and away from their social networks.
Above all, public policy needs to enable Local Authorities to address housing needs across their area in a long term, sustainable way that uses resources in a planned way rather than spending time and resources fire-fighting and dealing with the social and economic fall out of housing need and instability.
Cllr Joe McManners of Oxford City Council is the. Executive Board Member for Housing Needs. This article was written in a personal capacity.