A PLEA to government to let Coventry City Council build council houses again has been challenged by a Tory councillor and ex-board member of housing association Whitefriars.
The Coventry Observer last week reported the call from leading Labour councillor Ed Ruane for government permission for councils to borrow to tackle a chronic shortage of homes with the city population rising, including social housing.
Tory councillor David Skinner has now called on Coun Ruane to explain what such a policy would mean for the housing association, and existing agreements between the council and Whitefriars.
In the year 2000, it was agreed to transfer all 20,000 council homes in Coventry to Whitefriars Housing, a non-profit private company, which has elected councillors among its board of directors.
The Conservatives in government now wants to extend tenants’ ‘right to buy’ their council homes to tenants of housing association properties – believing the private housing market with government incentives can better supply affordable housing.
But for many years there has been a local and national chronic shortage of such housing for less well off people and families. Targets for housing supply to keep up with demand have been repeatedly missed amid government changes to the planning system since 2010.
Many in the Labour party, including its potential new leader Jeremy Corbyn, believe the responsibility to build social housing should wrest more with councils.
Labour Coun Ruane has pointed to soaring rents in Coventry’s private housing sector as further evidence that the system is failing. His party pledged during the General Election, under its then leader Ed Miliband, to cap private rents.
Conservative councillor Skinner said: “I’m puzzled by Ed’s comments.
“I feel very strongly that we need more and improved social housing. I’m happy to see more money going into Westwood (Coun Skinner’s ward) and elsewhere to improve the housing stock.
“There is of course the problem of encroachment on green land but, yes, by all means improve social housing.
“The population of the UK, both national and local, is going up and up. We are a first world country, and our social housing stock needs improvement. Whitefriars and other housing associations deserve much credit for their excellent work in this field.
“But is Ed seriously proposing the council should start building again? How does that fit with legal agreements with Whitefriars?”
The proposed West Midlands Combined Authority could from next April have some responsibility for housing and – as a partnership between overwhelmingly Labour-run councils including Coventry – could potentially push a similar council housing agenda.
Prior to 2010 when the Tories ran Coventry City Council, Labour councillors consistently argued the council was borrowing too much.
But, in power, Labour councillors have advocated borrowing to invest, including borrowing against future business rate revenues with a system called Tax Increment Financing suggested last week by Coun Ruane.
Coun Ruane also argued last week he understood concerns such borrowing to build homes would lead to more council and public sector debt.
But he argues the money would be repaid – and a desperate shortage of housing in Coventry would be finally addressed, with 12,000 people currently on the Homefinder ‘waiting list’.
Coventry’s Labour leaders also want to build homes on ten per cent of Greenbelt to aid growth to become a ‘top ten city’.
Prior to 2013, Labour councillors had repeatedly pledged to voters to protect all green land from housebuilding.