OPINION: Councils can do more for housing if government works with us

David Ellesmere and new council housing in Grimwade Street Ipswich

David Ellesmere, leader of Ipswich Borough Council, looks at the impact of high rent and the cost of living crisis in his opinion column. - Credit: Charlotte Bond/Ipswich Borough Council

A recently published survey shows that nearly a third of people privately renting their home in Suffolk are paying over half of their income on rent.

The worry of tenants used to be that high rents meant they would never be able to save enough to buy their own house. Now, with soaring energy, fuel and food prices the bigger worry is whether there is enough money to last the month.

Cuts to housing benefits mean they are now seriously out of kilter with rents and only cover a proportion of rent, even for people on the very lowest incomes.

The Government used to think that this would cause rents to fall but it hasn’t happened because of a shortage of affordable rented housing. Instead, people are having to top up their rents from money they previously used for food, heating or travel leading to ever more precarious finances.

Many private landlords are now extremely reluctant to take people on benefits as tenants. It is not necessarily the case that someone renting a “cheap” property is any better off either.

These tend to be houses that have had less money invested in them and are too often poorly insulated, draughty and damp. Money saved on rent can often go on increased energy bills.

Far too many landlords and management companies seem to exist only to gouge as much money out of their tenants as possible while spending as little money as they can on maintaining their properties.

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I am not saying that this is the experience of all private tenants or that all private landlords are bad, but I have come across too many cases to know that this is far more common than it should be.

That is why I have always been a strong advocate for council housing.

Ipswich Borough Council provides good quality, well maintained, housing at affordable rents. Funded solely through the rents our tenants pay, council housing does not require any subsidy from council tax payers.

Through continuous investment we have installed double-glazing, Triple-A rated boilers, loft, cavity and external insulation, as well as solar panels on suitable properties.

These are all helping to shield our tenants from the worst of the massive jump in the cost of energy – as well as cutting carbon
emissions.

The problem is that there simply aren’t enough council houses for everyone who needs or wants one.

Since Right To Buy was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s – and more importantly, her insistence that sale receipts couldn’t be used to build replacement houses – the number of council houses has halved in Ipswich.

For two decades virtually no council housing was built anywhere in Britain but, following changes proposed at the tail-end of the last Labour government, councils are once again building new houses.

In Ipswich we have built over 260 new council houses, most recently at the former Tooks bakery site on Old Norwich Road and a number of smaller schemes at Sheldrake Drive, Coltsfoot Road, Halton Crescent, Mallard Way and Emmanuel Close.

One of the most prominent of our new schemes is the 16 flats on Grimwade Street which are currently nearing completion.

We have over 300 more homes in the pipeline at Fore Hamlet, Hawke Road, Bibb Way and Ravenswood. The Hawke Road scheme will also include a significantly improved play area for the benefit of all residents on Greenwich.

All our new-build council houses are well insulated with solar panels where possible and reserved for people with a connection to Ipswich.

The last two years saw the first net increase in council houses in Ipswich since Right To Buy sales began but we are still a long way off being able to give everyone a council house who needs one.

We could do so much more if the Government worked with us rather than against us. They stopped an earlier scheme at Ravenswood because – unbelievably – they said there were “too many” council houses and will still only contribute to new housing if we charge higher rents.

It would be much better if there was a national consensus around the vital role council housing could play in helping to tackle the Cost of Living Crisis.