As a mostly hidden housing crisis creates misery for families and single people across the region, the St Vincent de Paul Society and Hexham Quakers are organising a series of public debates at St. Mary's Parish Centre which call on the local community to come together and create a better housing future for all with do-it-yourself solutions.
The next debate will be Saturday 21 October, 11am to 12.30pm, at St. Mary's Parish Centre, St Mary's Catholic Church, Hencotes, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 2EB. The topic will be ‘Private rented housing. Should it be controlled?’ Refreshments will be provided.
According to housing charity Shelter, every day 150 families in Britain become homeless. For many people, our housing market is a daily nightmare of rising costs and falling benefits which has become a national crisis. Young people have a dwindling chance of owning their own home, social housing is unavailable and private rents are rising beyond people’s reach.
The Hexham Housing Debates are a way for local people concerned by the housing crisis to come together, find out more about housing issues and discuss community-led solutions to make housing in West Northumberland better for everyone.
Anyone is welcome to attend the debates. To find out more, please visit the Hexham Housing Debates Facebook Page or email Moyra Riseborough who is helping to organise the debates for the St Vincent de Paul Society.
The debates will create a panel of local people to identify the key housing issues facing the region and to consider possible solutions. They will consult with Northumberland County Council officials, voluntary organisations and housing professionals. The panel will give an overview of its findings and recommendations for action by January 2018.
Hexham St Mary’s SVP Conference is working in partnership with Hexham Quakers to engage people of all faiths in a series of public debates on housing issues, in a bid to find local solutions to ease the growing housing crisis. It is a major undertaking for everyone involved, but with free accommodation provided by St Mary’s Parish Centre and the goodwill of Speakers and invited Chairs, the first two Hexham Housing Debates in September and October were a great success, showing a high level of public interest and concern about housing issues in West Northumberland.
The opening Debate gave an overview of the current state of UK housing, both good and bad, and was chaired by former CEO of De Paul Housing, Paul Marriott (now CEO of St Cuthbert’s Hospice, Durham). Speakers were Professor Becky Tunstall from York University and Andrew Burnip from Crisis Skylight Project Newcastle. The Speakers set the scene for the Debates by highlighting the major issues as well as historic success stories, particularly in eradicating slums and dealing with the major overcrowding and poor housing conditions common in the UK until the 1960s.
Professor Tunstall shocked some of the audience with her evidence that a key problem in the UK is that too much money is invested in housing as a commodity, rather than homes for people to live in, due to low returns in the money markets on savings and investments. Andrew Burnip talked about the growing number of people living in insecure housing as well as those who are actually homeless. Andrew pointed out how easy it is for people to lose the roof over their heads and why we should all be concerned.
The second Debate on private rented housing asked if it should be controlled. Speakers were Brian Robson, Policy and Research Manager from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and Carla Keegans, CEO of the first Ethical Lettings Agency in the UK, based in Redcar, Teesside. The Debate was chaired by international housing expert Rose Gilroy, Professor of Ageing, Policy & Planning at the Newcastle University School of Architecture.
Carla Keegans established the Ethical Lettings Agency, a Community Interest Company, following a successful career in housing management because she wanted to give back to her local community. It is a successful business, but it charges tenants more reasonable rents and provides better quality accommodation than commercial lettings agencies. It also offers landlords a reasonable return on investment. “It’s a very easy business model to copy anywhere,” Carla said. “I’m keen for other communities to benefit from our success.”
Brian Robson gave a masterly overview of the private rented housing sector, describing how it has expanded rapidly since the 1980s. The number of people living in private rented properties now outstrips those in other kinds of housing, Brian explained, but it isn’t a matter of choice. Most people simply have no access to what used to be called council housing (social housing) because of its strict access criteria and because there isn’t enough to go around. Fewer people, especially those under 40, can afford to buy a home and are looking at a long-term future of living in private rented housing.
Private rented housing – a poor return on public money
On the question of controlling private rented housing, it seems there are no easy answers. While there are good landlords and satisfied tenants able to pay market rents, it is less straightforward when public money is involved. Brian Robson said that if rents were too tightly controlled, landlords could sell up and deepen the homelessness crisis. Yet the uncomfortable truth is that millions of pounds of public money are paid in Housing Benefit to private landlords for housing that is sometimes very poor quality. With insecure tenancies in private accommodation, many people have to move frequently, so the return in terms of public money invested is poor. Brian highlighted the examples of Ireland and Scotland, where legal improvements ensure that Housing Benefit goes to landlords who give tenants better quality housing and more security.
“A great Debate – thanks SVP and Quakers”
“About time there was some serious discussion on this”