Housing and the need for housing is an especially hot topic at the moment. There are over 3,oo0 local people on the council list for those with a housing need and no sign that the need will decrease. After many years the council are committed to build new houses for this sector.
Sara Creedy (Con, Holy Trinity) is the lead councillor with the responsibility of overseeing this area of work at Guildford Borough Council (GBC). Here she talks to the Guildford Dragon News about herself, the role and the current situation…
Questions asked by Martin Giles of the GUILDFORD DRAGON
Tell me something about your background.
I was born and went to school in Kent, studied Law at Cambridge, finishing with a year at Guildford’s Law College. I married my husband Adrian who was also a solicitor and now have three children, the eldest of whom is married, the youngest still at school. I took articles with Linklaters, a city firm, qualified as a solicitor and worked in commercial property department there, finally leaving when second child was born.
What about your working life?
Worked on development agreements, financing for larger property schemes, including the Channel Tunnel and shopping centres and worked part-time for a Guildford firm when we moved here in 1995. I gave up practising law altogether when I get more involved in local politics; as a mother of young children either sleep or the job had to go.
What made you decide to become a councillor?
I wanted to get more involved in local politics because there are only so many times you can complain about how something is done before getting on and doing it yourself.
Why did you choose the Conservative party?
Because the Conservative party recognises responsibilities as well as rights, but also recognises the need for society to support those who are unable to support themselves.
How many hours a week, on average, do you spend on council business?
I am fortunate not to have work outside the home so am therefore relatively free to give as much time as is required to council work.
Council business roughly falls into two halves. Firstly, time spent dealing with constituents, reading papers and preparing for and attending council meetings: executive, scrutiny, planning, working groups etc, and giving policy direction to officers in my portfolio area of responsibility. Secondly, being involved in other organisations which only contacted me because I was a councillor, these include: being Chairman of Governors at the RGS and Lanesborough, Trustee of Poyle Charities and Governor at Abbots Hospital. So taken together “council” work takes about 30-35 hours each week, including 3-4 evenings each week.
Guildford is an affluent town why do we need social housing?
Guildford is an affluent town but with pockets of real deprivation – Dr Helen Pocock did a useful piece of research some years ago entitled Hidden Surrey which highlighted this. So there is an absolute need for social housing for those with exceedingly low incomes.
But there is also a growing need for some form of housing assistance to those people who while in work, many of them full time, are still unable to access market housing because of its high costs. The Draft Local Plan sets out the stark statistics on this – the Guildford affordability ratio is 10.89 compared to a national figure of 6.45 – which means half of all Guildford residents cannot rent or buy on the open market.
The council owns around 5,100 social housing units so we house about 10 per cent of the borough. But we have around 3,400 households on our joint housing needs register, 2,500 of whom have an urgent and significant housing need. In practice this can be a family of two working parents, with two children living in a one bedroom flat and facing a wait of up to four years before they receive a two-bed home. I could give many other examples from our waiting list.
It’s also important to realise that affordable housing comes in several shapes and forms. Social housing, owned by GBC, can be let on social rents which are typically around 50-60 per cent of market rent levels, or on affordable rents, which are up to 70 per cent of market rents, or the relevant local housing allowance rate, whichever is lower.
Other social housing providers such as Housing Associations also let on affordable rent levels. Then there is intermediate rent, about 80 per cent of market rents, and shared ownership where the occupier pays mortgage for part of the freehold and rent for the remainder, hopefully gradually increasing his/her share of the freehold over time. Hence a huge spectrum of tenants in affordable housing from those existing solely on benefits to those in fairly well paid jobs.
How does the financing of social housing work? How big is the budget and where do the funds come from?
Since 2012 the financing of social housing has been under local management. This was brought about by Housing Revenue Account (HRA) reform, which is a whole subject in itself. Put simply, the council, went from paying “rent” to having a “mortgage” for the council owned stock. We “bought” ourselves out of a negative subsidy system where by we were regularly sending £12million per annum to central government, for a one off payment of £196 million.
I hasten to add, we had no choice in this matter although it has actually proved to be advantageous to GBC and our tenants here in Guildford. This was funded by a loan secured on our existing stock on which the annual interest payments are around £8 million. From our existing stock we collect rents of approximately £29 million. These are then used to provide for interest payments, maintenance and improvement of our current homes and provision of new homes.
Each year we typically spend up to £10 million on the former and add £7-8 million to our reserves for the latter. The council is now in a position to directly deliver its own social housing. We currently have 65 new homes in development on site with plans in place to provide up to 150 over the next couple of years. We also work with other social housing providers and commercial developers who provide affordable housing as part of larger development schemes.
Is more social housing the only way to give preference to those with a local connection?
All of our social housing is allocated as fairly and as openly as possible on the basis of peoples need. We have recently revised our allocations policy and emphasised the significance of a local connection, obtained through either living or working within the borough. In some rural sites the local connection is defined even more tightly.
Providing new social housing is only one way of housing those in need. The other important way is to ensure best use of our existing stock. Before reforms in 2012, all social housing was let on tenancies for life. We are now able to grant fixed term tenancies. This means we have slightly more ability to ensure homes are only available for as long as they are needed. But the majority are still occupied under the old regime.
What do you think of the “bedroom tax”?
Under the old regime the under occupation penalty, which some call the “bedroom tax”, can have an impact. We have seen in Guildford a number of homes becoming available to larger households as people have been encouraged by the bedroom tax to downsize. This is clearly a huge subject but the short answer is that to a small extent the tax is working to help us make best use of limited social housing.
How do you envisage Guildford’s social housing sector a hundred years from now?
Wouldn’t it be great if there was no need for social housing in 100 years? But as prudent landowners our town and our council should plan for a continuing need, and set aside funds to keep our current stock in good repair and condition as well as money to build new properties. Our HRA business plan runs over a thirty year period as that is generally seen as a reasonable lifetime for the major components of houses, for example roofs, but it is continually refreshed so we have every confidence that Guildford’s social stock will be around for as long as it is needed.