Monthly Archives: May 2017

Provide the truly-affordable homes we need to address the fastest rising cause of homelessness

We all need a place called home – which is why making that affordable for all sits at the heart of the Green Party’s election manifesto. Our key policies require government intervention – to ensure we have a national target for affordable housing, to introduce private rent controls to better regulate this sector, and to protect the Green Belt. How would this play out here in Surrey?

Here in Reigate we know there is a problem with average house prices already 14 times average earnings in 2016. This crisis in housing affordability (crucially also for rent) will not be addressed by simply building more homes – it needs us to focus on affordable home provision together with a range of other measures, which are set out in the Green Party’s manifesto – in sharp contrast to the government’s failure to provide a clear plan to sort out housing – for a long time.

Much of the problem sits with central government. Here is a flavour of what our MP has supported in government since 2010:

  1. A massive reduction in government support for providing affordable homes, which in 2010 fell from £100,000 to around £16,000 per home provided here by Raven housing.
  2. This led to the redefining what is ‘affordable to rent’ from 50% of market rent to up to 80% of market rent – in one fail swoop making new social housing up to 60% more expensive in 2011. The result is that in the last few years much of the so-called ‘affordable housing’ has become completely unaffordable to many; and then
  3. The ‘viability test’ which gives developer’s an ‘opt out’ to provide any affordable housing or other local social or environmental standards. Now the ability of developer’s to make 20%+ profits trumps any obligation to do what is needed locally. This vicious new policy is part of the Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework, voted through despite vocal opposition, including from Green councillors here in Redhill. [Note: this weakening of planning policy, led by Conservative MPs, has also led to a four-fold increase in building on the Green Belt]

This is reflected in our poor record in providing affordable homes locally in recent planning decisions. For example, the failure to even provide the minimum amount of affordability on a number of large developments in the centre of Redhill – the station redevelopment, Liquid and Envy, the council’s own development of Marketfield Way and Cromwell Road and the new flats above KFC in Redhill. The Town and Country Planning Association recently highlighted that we are not alone – government needs to make better planning policy nationally to sort this out.

The knock on effect of rising ‘affordable’ home prices is spiralling private rent costs, which are increasing homelessness as well as the number of people stuck in half-way housing, unable to afford to move on into a new home locally. This totalled 141 families in Reigate and Banstead in December 2016: 116 in temporary accomodation and around 25 families in Bed & Breakfast accomodation (see p41 of budget evidence).

The housing and welfare policies of government since 2010 have created a huge increase in homelessness and rough sleeping. To address homelessness requires an integrated approach which must include a rebalancing of the housing market, focused on providing truly affordable homes, and a reversal of the cuts to public health, including here in Surrey which helps tackle alcohol and drug misuse and sexual health and welfare, helping to address some of the other underlying causes of homelessness. The Green Party policies include a number of ways to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. This includes investing in ‘Housing First’ initiatives, where homeless people with complex needs are moved into a home first instead of expecting them to recover on the streets. We must also reverse damaging cuts to welfare, such as the bedroom tax and the removal of housing benefit to under-21s.

And action is also needed locally, Here on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, my Green Councillor colleague Steve McKenna put forward a council motion – which was partially accepted by the Conservative council – for a guarantee that the council will treat its affordable housing policy as a minimum standard, and apply it to all public sites. But these targeted measures will not be sufficient unless they sit alongside a clear and well thought out restructuring of UK housing policy and funding:

– Firstly we need to have not so much a general ‘housebuilding target’ but a target for truly affordable homes. This is why the Green’s housing target is to build 100,000 council homes (homes for affordable rent) every year by 2022. Individuals and families are currently locked into living in hostels or having to move across the country because of the lack of council housing. This in turn means that people on the streets cannot get into hostels.

– Secondly, we need to reform renting – for as long as there is a lack of truly affordable social housing places then the biggest cause of homelessness in the UK is the loss of a private rented tenancy. This is reflected here in Reigate and Banstead, where the end of tenancy (including to introduce a hike in rent prices) is the main factor responsible for the rise in those made homeless. We would tackle this by giving tenants protection from no-fault evictions and rent controls to keep their home affordable.

– Finally, this needs a stronger planning framework. As noted above the Conservative/LibDem government’s reduction of 10,000 pages of planning policy to 52 pages in 2012 and redefinition of affordable as 80% rather than 50% of market rent might sound technical but this frames the problems we have today. The former allows the housing market to support 20% developer profit (as a minimum) before providing any affordable homes and the latter made new so-called affordable homes 60% more expensive overnight and has led to a continual spiralling in housing sale and rent costs. This has devastated living standards for those in private rent more than the last decade of stalled wages for many.

The government has repeatedly made bold promises and then failed to deliver positive changes to UK housing. And while the recent Homelessness Reduction Act will extend from just helping those with a ‘priority need’ to all those made homeless we still need to deal with the root causes – reduced public health provision and a lack of truly affordable homes. Addressing homelessness in the long-term must start with provision of affordable homes, as a right for all – but also requires the integrated social safety net, including public health care, and a commitment to provide these homes on brownfield not countryside and Green Belt sites. It is possible. But changes nationally are crucial if we are to make this happen locally.

A Better Plan for Schools starts by reversing the Funding Cuts

I am shocked that this government thinks that it can cut school’s annual (mainly teaching) budgets without this having an impact. With average class sizes already above 30 in many schools this will have a significant impact. The way to reverse this is not the Conservative promise to end free school dinners for all, while forgetting about the impact of academies on budgets. And The IFS has today exposed that this unfair idea would still lead a to 3% a year cut by 2021.

I highlighted this school funding crisis in my recent campaign to be re-elected onto Surrey County Council. The full extent of the government’s cuts to Reigate constituency schools are highlighted in the table here.  

This is unacceptable. I admire the excellent work done by teachers and other school staff under the current difficult conditions. I believe it is truly shocking that the Conservative Party is cutting funding for schools, with many schools now reducing teaching staff as well as cutting back on basic equipment. I understand that through speaking to a governor of one local primary school that around 90% of the school budget goes on staff – so cutting budgets will surely have a knock on effect, estimated at over 100 less teachers across the Reigate constituency.

 Our civilised society should value education as a public good and invests in it accordingly. Failure to do so is not only dereliction of duty towards individual children, whose opportunities to learn and thrive are greatly reduced; it is also extremely short-sighted, as the UK relies upon a well-educated population for its workforce and its global reputation – and for us to create a different and better future for the UK, and worldwide education is absolutely central.

We need to reverse both the government school budget cuts and academisation that are squeezing our school’s operations and leading to teaching posts being cut and class sizes going up across the UK.

In addtion, the shift to schools to academies is exacerbating this issue – as the additional cost of running the academy chains itself also draws money away, leaving less for teaching.

This means schools budgets are not just being squeezed by the government – but by the need to support academy chains. So schools budgets are in a double squeeze.

The Green Party’s position on this is clear. We must reverse both of these pressures on school budgets – and get better schools for all as a result.

  • Firstly, we must ensure that real terms spending on schools increases and is protected; which will reduce class sizes, with a long-term goal of 20 per class at both primary and secondary level.
  • Equally, we commit to return all schools to local authority control, ending the disastrous experiment with free schools and academies, which has fragmented the school system and directed money to where it is least needed while failing to improve children’s education.

Reversing this requires strong political campaigning to be brought, for which I am happy to act on your behalf.

Three Alternatives to a “Dementia Tax”

I have been trained as a Surrey County Councillor in dementia awareness and pledged to be a Dementia Friend. What would that mean if I were elected as MP?

I don’t accept that the best way to do this is Theresa May’s approach – to cut funding to local councils (who pay for social care) by £5.7 billion and instead increase the burden that will be paid by individuals through their £100,000 home “dementia tax” cap.

By loading the burden of responsibility on individuals – and particularly in Surrey with its high house prices – this is likely to increase stress and anxiety for elderly people. Totally unacceptable. Instead of worsening the current ‘care lottery’. where those with the greatest care needs have such a tax imposed on them, and risk a lack of dignity in older age, we need to fund social care equitably across society. So what might this response look like for dementia?

Firstly, we must reverse the cuts to the social care and NHS budgets have led to a crisis in care in the UK. As a county councillor I campaigned against the closure of Surrey’s last residential care homes –and raised this in council meetings. I have had residents and care workers highlight poor standards in some care homes. One care worker pointed out to me that there are minimum care ratios for residential care homes in Northern Ireland, yet funding pressures in England are increasingly putting patients at risk. Academics around the world have shown that minimum staffing levels save lives. Yet the standard of some care homes in Surrey is, in my view, not good enough (consider, for example, Merok Park in Banstead. This in itself needs a public inquiry to undercover the true extent of care home problems.

Secondly, I am concerned that the causes of dementia are rarely discussed, such as the increasing link between air pollution and dementia. While many have highlighted how air pollution leads to 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year there has been far less focus on what the health impacts are. Increasingly, research is linking air pollution to issues like dementia. So, the government should act – not just because it is in breach of minimum standards on air pollution, but because the health impacts – and costs – are huge.

Finally, I think dementia needs a new approach. I want to end on a positive note by highlighting the work of a good friend of mine, Brigitta. She is a Swiss nun who teaches social workers how to care for those with dementia. Her story is this – that you forget how to do tasks before you forget how to love. That a hand massage can reach those who no longer remember facts or names. This message is highlighted in the work of the many caring people who see people with dementia as people first, and seek to find the things they can still do and enjoy. The best care homes already do this of course – as in the example of the young care worker who helped a 93-year old musician reunite with his band.

I will definitely continue to do what I can to support those with dementia in my community – whether I’m elected to parliament or not. But if I’m elected would wish to take this further, and highlight how the lives of people with dementia locally, and their families and friends, is already impacted by the proposed Conservative changes, and that to stand up for those with dementia and their relatives a sea-change in how dementia is addressed is required.

Why I’m standing in the General Election

I have lived in Redhill for nearly 20 years. I serve as a councillor on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council and Surrey County Council, where I was recently re-elected with a greater majority.

I am a chartered civil engineer working (part-time) in international development and serve as a trustee of two local charities, Furnistore and Voluntary Action Reigate and Banstead. Previously I have helped set up new social enterprises to reuse building materials and preserve architectural heritage.

My priorities are to:

  • protect our Green Belt whilst securing the affordable homes we need locally within our towns and villages
  • reverse the squeeze to school funding and the cuts to the NHS, prisons and neighbourhood policing, and campaign against cuts to councils so they can provide decent social care and other services
  • fight to make sure Southern Rail is held to account (or loses its franchise) and that the extension of the Oyster zone to our borough is matched by fairer fares.

How? We need a stronger planning framework and better housing policies nationally and a different, sustainable plan for Britain. We won’t get this through a hard Brexit, corporation tax cuts, continued over-reliance on London’s economy, and airport expansion. Instead we need a clear plan for Britain to work towards the better future we all need: creating jobs across the UK that transitions us to a fair, resilient and sustainable economy.

I believe politics needs honesty, integrity and hope, and I am prepared to listen and stand up for all in our local area.