The council have been selling off hundreds of homes in Bristol over the last decade, despite a long waiting list for council housing.
Do the auctions represent the best deal for the city, or is the council making a quick buck but ignoring the long-term consequences?
Map: Lucas Batt
Council homes auctioned since 2005
There’s been anger in Bristol over the past couple of weeks over an auction, on 20 April, of 15 of the council’s homes, which are dotted around the city, from Hotwells to Cotham to St Paul’s to Easton. In St Pauls, the Community Rights Project are hosting an open meeting tomorrow to plan against the sell-offs. More than 4,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Bristol council to stop the sales, while mayor George Ferguson and Labour contender Marvin Rees have clashed over the issue.
Rees suggested that properties may well be sold to private developers, and would be better off being refurbished and let to council tenants, or given to housing associations and charities. Ferguson countered by accusing him of political opportunism and pointing out that these are, after all, just 15 houses and flats out of a total stock of 27,500.
Those numbers are correct, though it’s arguably a slightly disingenuous line of argument by the mayor. A Freedom of Information request by the Cable has shown that, including the 15 to go under the hammer this month, the council will have flogged off almost 300 homes since 2005 – about 1% of the housing it owns (see map). It’s been a steady but uneven drip-drip, with 58 being sold in 2009, but just nine in 2011.
Common sense or social cleansing?
Unlike most of the council’s housing, which is on purpose-built estates, the hundreds of homes that have been sold tend to be isolated Georgian or Victorian homes ‘acquired’ by the authority over the decades. They sit on streets of privately owned housing, in some cases in areas where it’s unusual to find council tenancies.
A few dozen council homes have gone from Clifton, Redland and Cotham, but it’s notable that many of the homes auctioned are in areas where rents have risen most steeply over the past few years. Around half of addresses, many of them terraces suitable for families, are in inner-city east and south Bristol.
Now, it would be ridiculous to imply that hanging onto these homes would have prevented postcodes becoming more expensive, and neither is it clear-cut that greedy developers have been the only beneficiaries. If you’ve lived in an older Bristol property, you’ll know that the council’s arguments about these kinds of homes being expensive to maintain are not totally unfounded. Especially as budgets have tightened, it’s easy to see why councils like Bristol prefer to cash in (though plenty also choose not to).
Nonetheless, whichever way you slice it, the loss of affordable homes to the market feeds into the process of lower-income households being priced out of neighbourhoods. Even if money raised at auctions goes into building new social housing – as the mayor has said it will – it’s more likely to be further from the city centre.
Colin Wiles, a social housing consultant, describes the approach taken by Bristol as “short sighted”.
“Social housing is a valuable asset,” he says, “and if it happens to be in high-value areas so much the better as it adds to the overall value of the council’s assets in the long-term.
“It’s important local authorities promote mixed communities where rich and poor can live side by side,” he adds. “Selling off homes and building new properties in the suburbs is a form of social cleansing that creates mono-tenure estates and segregation.”
Unfortunately for anyone calling for the council to simply stop selling its stock, the government wants to force it – and all other local authorities – to keep on doing so. That’s down to the new Housing and Planning Bill, currently being debated in the House of Lords.
It includes a section proposing that plans to give housing association tenants the right to buy their homes are funded by imposing a ‘levy’ on councils’ so-called ‘high-value’ housing. In order to pay this levy, authorities will effectively be forced to sell their most desirable homes as they fall empty, with receipts going to the Treasury rather than into the council’s own coffers.
“If we sell empty ‘acquired’ homes now we can still reinvest the receipts in Bristol, something we will not be able to do shortly,” says a council spokesperson.
It’s unclear whether councils can do anything to avoid this situation. The Housing and Planning Bill suggests that if authorities try to get around it by transferring all their homes to a housing association, they will still be charged the levy as if they owned them.
“Creative solutions to avoid homes falling into the private rented sector are available to those with the political will and vision to involve the communities affected in the process,” suggests Nick Ballard, organiser at community activism group ACORN. “Community land trusts, co-ops and other options are available as buyers to a mayor and council that, while recognising the constraints they operate under, are committed to the principle of decent, accessible and genuinely affordable housing.”
It will certainly be interesting, if Rees or another candidate replaces Ferguson, to see whether they come up with any alternative workable solution. In the meantime, the auctions look set to continue.