IT’S HARDER than ever right now to get a foot onto the first rung of the property ladder – whether you are looking to buy, or even just rent.
This issue has again been highlighted in recent days by Channel 4’s ‘The Great British Property Scandal’: a two-part documentary which identified that there are around two million families who can’t find a home at a time when there are also roughly a million empty homes in the UK.
That has prompted me to use this week’s Blog to explain what is being done to assist people in securing homes for their families here in Oldham.
Having a roof over your head is, of course, of paramount importance to every resident and it sits at the top of our priority list for action as an administration.
Housing need represents a massive challenge for every Local Authority and we are being proactive to meet it.
We currently have a significant number of new build properties under construction or set to get underway across the Borough.
Over the next three years an estimated 1,190 new homes will be built through a variety of schemes with – crucially – 670 of these to be made available for affordable rent.
Just last week we signed the contract for four new public housing sites at Crossley and Primrose Bank estates, and on brownfield sites in Westwood and Fitton Hill. Together these will see more than 700 new homes built or refurbished.
There are also several important programmes being implemented which are designed to ease local housing waiting lists.
Oldham Council recently commissioned Aksa Housing to develop a social lettings agency that will seek to increase the supply of good-quality private rented accommodation available.
The recent passing of the Localism Act also means the private rented sector could be used to assist in tackling homelessness and the Oldham Bond Scheme – funded by the Council – now links into this by enabling households to access the private rented sector where they currently don’t have the financial means to do so.
Our pioneering Downsizing Scheme is also making important headway and creating ‘room’ on the housing register.
This supports people living in family accommodation within the social rented sector. It is delivered with a range of housing associations and is making a real difference in helping people find more suitable accommodation that is smaller, easier and cheaper to run. To date, the scheme has already helped more than 200 different households in the Borough.
The Council now has a Nominations Agreement in place with all registered providers of social housing in the Borough. This works to cut the numbers on the waiting list by increasing the number of properties they potentially have access to – and we’re also developing a solution with providers which could see the creation of just one unified housing register (or waiting list) for all in need of social housing.
An Instant Homes scheme managed by First Choice Homes Oldham has properties that are immediately available, and details can be found on the FCHO website at www.fcho.co.uk
For disabled residents we’ve also now provided funding for a member of staff to develop an Accessible Housing Register to promote their needs within the social rented sector.
The Channel 4 programme rightly identified the waste caused by long-term empty properties.
As of October this year our figures show we had 1,642 long-term empty properties across the Borough – either privately or publicly-owned.
We’re proposing to increase the resources dedicated to bringing these back into use with the recruitment of two dedicated empty homes officers.
The way that this will work is that properties can either be returned to use voluntarily by influencing the owner to realise their potential – or by us increasing enforcement activity on the most persistent of problem properties that blight neighbourhoods.
A key part of that now sees us working with AKSA who will offer their services to absent owners to encourage them to put vacant properties back into use.
I did find the Channel 4 programme somewhat misleading in how it appeared to selectively film streets of homes left unoccupied, it seemed, either as a result of a wider regeneration programme, or the end of funding for the Housing Market Renewal (HMR) scheme.
In our own HMR areas we are very active on work to complete a programme of 193 demolitions across Werneth and Derker. Whilst we recognise that this will still leave some Werneth residents living adjacent to boarded-up properties we are working hard with Ward Members to develop a plan to hopefully resolve some of the issues this means for them.
Where properties can feasibly be brought back into use, we are also not sitting on our hands. One small example is a recent deal we’ve made to sell seven homes that were formerly acquired through HMR. As part of that we insisted vital works are carried out to bring them back to a habitable standard – as a condition of sale – to bring them back into use.
There are no easy answers to the nation’s housing problems, particularly during what is now widely accepted to be an ‘Age of Austerity’.
It’s also a sad fact that the current national levels of home building, against that backdrop of economic recession, are inadequate to meet the demand.
More innovation and funding will need to be found to tackle this situation nationwide but we remain fully committed – wherever possible – to act to bring vacant properties back into use and boost our housing stock.
Thanks for listening,