People with local connections deserve priority for housing, says Ipswich MP
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It was with great interest that I read Cllr David Ellesmere’s opinion piece this earlier this week titled “Why we need a commitment to build more council houses for the people of Ipswich”. With the emphasis on “the people of Ipswich”, I thought the Labour leader of the Borough Council may finally be ready to accept that affordable housing should be prioritised for Ipswich residents and that a proper local residency requirement should be introduced.
But I was wrong. His article made no mention of the fact that the council he runs continues not to operate a local residency requirement for council housing, meaning people with no connection to Ipswich whatsoever can be placed ahead of Ipswich residents in the queue.
Technically the council might argue that if someone with no connection to Ipswich has the same needs as an Ipswich resident then the Ipswich resident would be prioritised; but it doesn’t fill me with confidence that when asked for the figures on how this works in practice, the council responded that they don’t collect the data. And as things stand, it’s disingenuous to imply that all the time you’re building council homes for the “People of Ipswich” when this might not be the case.
I am of the view that we need more council housing in Ipswich, but since before my election I’ve been campaigning on the message of local homes for local people. Only those who have lived in Ipswich for at least six years, or who have held a strong local connection to our town for a similar length of time, should be eligible to join our housing register.
Local homes for local people is popular with virtually everyone I have spoken to in the town about it, and many are surprised why this isn’t something that’s being done already. Local residency requirements have also proved popular in other boroughs I’ve had engagement with.
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In his piece, Cllr Ellesmere admits that there are around 3,000 people on the register for a council house in Ipswich but only 500 properties become vacant every year, and waiting lists are long. It’s therefore even more confusing why the council doesn’t concentrate our town’s resources on the people who its supposedly there to serve. We should also have all the resources at our town’s disposal ready to help local people face the housing challenges on the horizon as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.
In this context, it’s overly simplistic for a Labour council, which has consistently failed to meet its own house-building targets, to lay blame solely at the door of the government. We do need more affordable homes, including affordable rent. And just on Tuesday the government announced the details of a new £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme which will deliver up to 180,000 new homes across the country. A significant proportion of these homes will be for social and affordable rent.
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This has my full support, but we must also be ready to accept responsibility at the local level and be prepared to unapologetically put the people of Ipswich first. If our involvement in the Gateway to Homechoice scheme prevents us from doing this, then we must be prepared to extricate ourselves from it. The scheme means Ipswich Borough Council advertises its council housing on the same basis to people in Colchester and five other local authority areas as it does to people in Ipswich. And while I appreciate this also gives people in Ipswich more choice in return, we must empower ourselves to make our own decisions about how we can best support local people with our local housing. If it is the case that being part of the Gateway for Home Choice prevents us from being able to introduce a robust local residency requirement then I think we should reconsider our involvement.
I fully accept that there should be cooperation with neighbouring authorities, particularly when we have cases of vulnerable individuals fleeing domestic violence, however this does not need to mean having a housing register which is as integrated as it currently is with such a large number of other local authorities if it prevents us from being able to introduce a proper local residency requirement.
We must also be smart about how we deliver more council housing, and local homes for local people is one of the ways we can get public confidence behind this aim. One of the emerging concerns in response to the Council’s plans to build 96 new homes in Ravenswood is how there is nothing stop a proportion of the council housing going to people who aren’t from the town.
I will keep banging the drum for local homes for local people alongside local Conservative councillors and candidates.
I’ve always been clear that as Ipswich’s MP that my first loyalty is to the people of our town, and it’s about time the local Labour council started doing the same.
We can’t have an honest conversation about council housing in Ipswich until we ask why people with no local connection can be prioritised over people who grew up here or moved here years ago and now need our support. As it stands, if their housing need is marginally less than someone who has no connection with Ipswich then they will have less priority, this needs to change.