Greater Manchester: A beacon of security

A secure place to call home is one of the most basic human needs of all. 

But, in Greater Manchester in 2016, that security is something thousands of people are having to live without.

We can do better than this.

As your Mayor, my policy aim would be simple: a decent and affordable home, either to rent or to own, for everyone in Greater Manchester.

We wouldn't be able to achieve it overnight. But all of my housing policies would be geared towards that goal.

The truth is Greater Manchester's housing crisis was not made here. It was made in Westminster.  

Over decades, national policy has led to: the sell-off of our council housing; an unregulated private-rented sector; and a failure to build the new homes that we need.

These short-sighted policies have left us with a dysfunctional housing market that fails to meet people's needs. 

Too many people in Greater Manchester are:

  • paying rent that is way above what they can afford and living in fear of eviction;
  • stuck in poor, over-crowded accommodation that is not good for their health and deprives their children of a decent environment; and
  • part of 'Generation Rent' - struggling to find a way on to the housing ladder and live where they grew up, due to inflated house prices

 

Worst of all, when we go into our town centres and city-centre, we can once again see increasing numbers of people huddled in the doorways - the surest of all signs that we have a majority Tory Government in power.

Tory policies are directly responsible for this - from the Bedroom Tax to DWP sanctions to cuts to refuges and supported housing. In the last two years, one of our councils has seen a 400% increase - from 200 people per quarter to 1000 - in the number of people needing homelessness advice.   

But the seeds of this housing crisis were sown long ago and there is one person to blame for it more than any other: Margaret Thatcher. The selling-off council of council houses in the 1980s and 1990s whilst prohibiting the use of the proceeds to build more lies behind the misery we see today. 

That short-sighted policy was compounded by Thatcher's failure to support communities as traditional industry collapsed. In parts of Greater Manchester, house prices plummeted and, by the early 90s, whole streets could be bought for a pittance. Speculators who took advantage have been making a handsome profit out of our communities ever since. 

The scourge of absent, private landlords bedevils much of Greater Manchester - particularly the older mill towns across its northern arc. 

Many never visit our area and don't care about the state of the properties they rent out. They only care about the rent cheques they keep raking in. 

One of the reasons we are in such a mess is because an out-of-touch Westminster has for years tried to foist a policy designed for the affluent South on the rest of the country. 

For decades, the national policy focus has been on promoting owner-occupation to the exclusion of investing in other forms housing. And, sadly, it remains the focus of policy today. 

Under the devolution deal, a £300 million Housing Fund has been created for Greater Manchester. At the insistence of the Government, this Fund is limited to commercially-led housing development. 

As a result, there are concerns that the Fund has been used to provide loans to large companies, which should have used their own finance instead, and that is too focused on city-centre and luxury schemes. 

Whilst it is clearly building new properties and helping to stimulate regeneration, I cannot see how this approach will this solve our housing problems. 

Instead, we need a Greater Manchester Housing Fund that is totally focused on tackling Greater Manchester's Housing Crisis. 

If devolution is to mean anything, then surely it should be left to us to determine our own housing priorities? 

I think so, and that is why I will renegotiate the aims of this fund so that we can fully focus it on the long-term goal of an affordable home for all. 

My top priority will be to encourage a substantial increase in council and social housing in all 10 boroughs. That is what Greater Manchester needs more than anything else.

The majority of the Fund should be used to provide loans and guarantees to our councils and housing associations to expand the public housing stock and build the affordable homes for rent that we desperately need. 

A small proportion of the new homes will be designated "Rent-to-Own": available on a long-term lease to people under-35 and giving hope of home ownership to 'Generation Rent'. 

My second priority will be to establish a "Community Buy-Back Fund" - providing loan finance to councils to buy out private landlords who fail to maintain properties to the decent homes standard. 

This policy will have a number of benefits. First, it will quickly expand public housing stock. Second, it will bring rents down to an affordable level. Third, it will enhance the ability of councils to turn around struggling neighbourhoods. Fourth, it will bring down the Housing Benefit bill. On this last point, I will negotiate a deal with the Government to pass back a fair share of the savings to the GM Housing Fund. 

By operating the Fund on a loan-finance basis, it will continue to replenish over time and help us deliver our long-term goal. 

More broadly, I will establish a licensing scheme for private landlords across Greater Manchester and, in the long term, seek powers to regulate rent increases and property standards. 

By doing these things, we will show the rest of the country that it is possible to have a housing policy that is not solely focused on owner-occupation but offers hope and security to everyone. This is another way that we can make Greater Manchester a beacon of social justice.

We will only truly deserve that title, however, if we take a radical approach to tackling homelessness. We are wealthy enough as a society to put a roof over everyone's head.  

So here's my final pledge: let's set a new goal of ending homelessness in Greater Manchester. To achieve it, I will ask Debbie Abrahams MP to lead a new city-region-wide initiative uniting public, private and voluntary organisations who want to help.

This will require real innovation and a willingness to rethink how public services work with the voluntary sector.

Often, homelessness is the symptom of other deep-seated and intractable problems in someone's life.

Tackling homeless is not just about putting a roof over someone's head but giving them the breathing space and the security to face up to these problems - debt, addiction or damaged relationships - and develop a new confidence that they can in fact be tackled. 

I am the Patron of a ground-breaking charity in Leigh which had pioneered this 'Recovery' model with great success. Compassion in Action prides itself on its "whole-person" approach. Where public bodies operate in silos - and only end up managing people's problems - the charity gives people in crisis housing security for a year and a range of other support to turn their lives around. Crucially, it gives them trust and belief. 

I have seen for myself how this model works and, by operating joint commissioning with the public sector, saves public money in the process. I will ask Debbie for advice on how we can extend this model across Greater Manchester and get all public sector bodies behind it. 

In addition, will ask her to consider the benefits of establishing a GM-wide homelessness service. Helping people move away from areas where they have problems can help them get the perspective and confidence to rebuild their lives.

I want Greater Manchester to show the rest of the country that a society based on compassion, security and social justice makes economic sense too. If we give all people the bedrock of an affordable home, the chances are they will go on to contribute much more to society.

I would be pleased to hear any thought you have on the ideas in this blog. You can email them to info@andy4mayor.co.uk.

One final point: one of the problems with the nature of the housing debate is that it is too focused  on the quantity of homes to be built and not enough on the quality. The truth is we need to worry about both. 

I will place a new emphasis on building homes with care and support in mind. In the ageing society, we need to follow the lead of Sweden and start building specially-designed 'dementia-friendly' homes. 

Too many older people in Greater Manchester end up in expensive care homes because their own accommodation is not suitable for their needs. However, our goal as a society should be to support people in their own homes, rather than allowing them to drift into hospital and then care homes.  

 

It is time to bring health policy and housing policy together. That is what I seek to do as your Mayor. I will say more about this in my next blog on the National Health and Care Service.