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The difficulties of investing in social housing

Local councils have the ability to build housing and many have (re)started doing so in the last couple of years. The proposed Housing and Planning Bill will seriously affect their ambitions. The Bill contains a variety of measures that make a complex subject even more so – reducing both funding and certainty for local government.

At Mid Suffolk District Council, the council has over 3,300 homes in its own housing stock and runs a 30 year business plan to ensure there are the funds to maintain these and also to provide funds towards building new ones. Within the Housing and Planning Bill councils are forced to reduce rents by 1% per year. This will knock several million pounds off Mid Suffolk’s plans meaning less social housing will be able to be built.

Other measures in the Bill include greater promotion of Right to Buy yet local government only gets some of the discounted sale price of a council house and further can only use this to a maximum of 30% of the cost of building a replacement. The remainder of the sale price goes back to the Treasury and the council has to find additional funds in order to build the replacement. (And if the council does not spend the Right to Buy receipts within three years, these have to go back to the Treasury with interest.)

Housing Association homes will now be included in Right to Buy, albeit voluntarily, however much of the land Housing Associations built on was gifted by local councils so that more social housing could be built. The idea was that there would be social housing in perpetuity but now this will go into private hands and out of the public estate – further reducing the stock of social housing.

Government is asking councils to sell off their high value housing – funds which will be used to compensate Housing Associations for Right to Buy activity. However it doesn’t matter whether a council actually sells any housing or not (even if they have any high value housing which, outside of London, is not likely) as Government will simply charge a levy on councils payable to the Treasury. There is not yet any information on how this levy will be calculated.

And finally in the Housing and Planning Bill there is Pay to Stay. This is where households earning over £30,000 a year (outside London) pay more rent to stay in their council house. Again there is no detail on how this will work – especially given councils don’t actually collect data on household income.

Councils need the freedom to be able to build housing to meet their residents’ housing needs – whatever their circumstances – not a Bill that will mean they pay more to an increasingly centralising government that gives very little in return.

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Joined up thinking

20150925_141016I am at the Green Party conference in Bournemouth and meeting lots of enthusiastic and optimistic fellow councillors. We have talked about solutions to particular issues such as transport, housing and energy efficiency by greater joined up thinking across all levels of government. Hopefully we can see much more of this in the future.

Local Post Office to be re-housed – good news or bad?

2071174_ourlogo_ENGLISH_COLOUR_LOGO_REF3_2The Post Office has just issued a consultation on closing Elmswell Post Office (next to the Co-op) and moving it into the Pharmacy – ie: north of the railway line.  The corporate line is that this is good news, opening hours will be slightly longer (by 30 minutes), it won’t be shut for lunch, with the only difference in servcies that you won’t be able to buy Premium Bonds nor on the spot travel insurance.  However – previous local experience has shown that a new service may be far from better.  In Woolpit, where the Post Office has moved from it’s own building to a counter within the Co-op, villagers complain of longer (and confusing) queues, lack of privacy and simply the fact that two good village services have been squashed into one.

At Elmswell the Post Office will now be in the Pharmacy which is probably not frequented as often as the Co-op is.  It may also suffer from the same problems currently happening in Woolpit.  The change is expected to happen in October or November this year.  Ultimately if it doesn’t work – does Elmswell lose a Post Office altogether?

The consultation has just opened and you can access it via www.postofficeviews.co.uk and follow the links.  Elmswell’s number is 063112.  If this is important to you, please take part in the consultation before it closes on 18 August 2015.

2015 Elections – re-elected uncontested

Following the closure of nominations for the 2015 Mid Suffolk District Council elections, as no other candidate has stood against me I have been re-elected uncontested.  I am very appreciative of the support I have received from the communities of Haughley and Wetherden to date and hope to continue to serve residents well.  I will continue to raise any concerns and support local issues that residents have.

Local banking for the public interest

Wouldn’t it be good to have a network of truly local banks that acted in the public interest, served local communities and helped small businesses?  The New Economics Foundation (www.neweconomics.org) has just produced a report showing how this can be done – by building on the current level of public ownership of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and transforming it into a network of local, publicly accountable banks.  This type of approach already exists in countries such as Germany and Switzerland but here, in the UK, Government still seems to think that big is best.  I  will be asking David Ruffley what is being done on this and hope national politicians read this report and have the common sense to act on it before selling RBS off.

Budgets and transparency

Mid Suffolk District Council’s  budget for 2015/16 is due to be approved at the Council meeting at the end of February.  The core budget (of approximately £10 million) is very similar to last year – and the year before.  However – there is an additional £2 million, plus over £3 million underspent from previous years, allocated to “delivery plan projects”.  This is money for projects intended to “transform” how the Council works and make the Council more sustainable – yet there is no clear overall plan of how this money will be spent and therefore very little transparency or accountability to the public.

In addition the Council is asking councillors to agree potential borrowing of £25 million for future Council projects – again with no detail.

I would like to see far greater transparency and accountability in explaining the Council’s budgets to the general public – and getting the public’s opinion on how the money should be spent.

Potential closure of level crossings threatens local communities

Network Rail have released a consultation on their plans for 2019 to 2024 – the Anglia Route Study www.networkrail.co.uk/long-term-planning-process/anglia-area-route-study-draft-for-consultation.pdf The consultation ends on 3rd February 2015 and responses should be sent to AngliaRouteStudy@networkrail.co.uk

Prior to the timeframe this Study covers, a number of schemes are expected to be delivered including “safety improvements, particularly involving level crossings” (including closing 500 more level crossings across the country). Within the Study itself the key project affecting us is “Norwich in Ninety”. This project aims to cut journey times between Norwich and London to 90 minutes where they are currently between 104 and 115 minutes. The fear, locally, is that Network Rail will use this opportunity to save money by closing lots of level crossings whether road or footpath.

Closure of any crossings will have a devastating impact locally – villages cut off from each other (how to travel from Haughley to Old Newton for example); footpaths closed with access to the countryside completely limited; not to mention the damage to local businesses and general community cohesion.

Network Rail is not intending to confirm which crossings will be affected until after the consultation. If we don’t make our voices heard now – we may be too late. Please respond to the consultation and write to your MP.

For information on a local group set up to combat this, please see www.suffolkcrossings.co.uk

 


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