Category Archives: Housing

82 Westminster Way – vacant and derelict, for now

For years this property has been empty and derelict. For months I’ve been working with Vale officers to get the property cleared up; it’s the best we can do without legal action. But in the long term, I’d really like to see this house put back into use, either by making it habitable and ensuring there are occupants, or by demolishing it to build some new affordable residences.

This week I met with the head of planning, who agreed to seek advice from the legal team and housing team to begin to move forward on efforts to bring this long-term vacant house back into use. I feel renewed optimism.

Here’s the short history: 

Before this year, Vale enforcement officers served notices on the homeowner to clear up the property. There was no response to the orders.

There have been fires set, causing the fire brigade to respond. Windows and doors are broken, blighting that part of the neighbourhood. Environmental health have been called-out to deal with vermin infestation. Young people find it an attractive place to vandalise; police have been called to deal with brick throwing, for example. (Thanks to Emmett Casley for the photo.) It’s all made worse by being right beside the pedestrian under crossing children use to get to North Hinksey Primary School.

In January this year the Enforcement Team began the process of procuring a contractor to come and clear the site of overgrown shrubs and rubbish, secure broken doors and windows, and basically make it look not so derelict. Of course this is a short term solution, and will need to be repeated periodically as long as the property is neglected. Vale are realistic in not expecting to recoup these costs from the homeowner; apparently there is a long list of creditors with liens against the property.

One bit of good news: in the opinion of building inspectors, the building is not unsound and is unlikely to fall down. It’s not known what all the scaffolding at the site is for.

I’m concerned about three things, basically:

  • that we minimise the amount of taxpayers’ money used to make the property safe and reduce its attraction for more vandalism
  • that we explore legal options for bringing this house back into use
  • that action is ultimately taken to either make the house habitable, or demolish it and provide some new dwellings

This week I met with the head of planning, who agreed to seek advice from the legal team and housing team to begin to move forward on efforts to bring this long-term vacant house back into use. I feel renewed optimism.

As to what happens next, well the Vale is obliged to give the owner 30 days notice to retrieve any personal property from the site, and then the site will be cleared up. Notice was given in early March, so that clear up should happen in April. I consider this to be a reasonable use of our tax money to arrest decline.

(Have you heard of the broken windows theory?  In areas where there are broken windows, graffiti, and other vandalism and signs of dereliction, it somehow acts as implicit permission for more of the same behaviour. If we don’t clear up our neighbourhood messes, more messes appear. So I bang on about litter, graffiti, derelict houses and the like. Read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory)

 

The 2016 Housing Act: no action in Vale so far

Here’s the question I asked at the Feb 2017 Vale full council meeting. 

E. Question from Councillor Debby Hallett to Councillor Roger Cox, Cabinet member for planning.

In December 2015, Council passed a motion in support of the Housing Bill, which would build starter homes, grant automatic planning permission to build on brownfield sites, sell off high value vacant council assets and use the money to build more affordable homes in the same area, and extend right to buy to housing association tenants. How many starter homes have been sold in the year since? How many automatic permissions have been given for brownfield development? How many council assets have been sold off, and how many new affordable houses have those sales funded? How many housing association tenants have exercised their right to buy?

Answer

Councillor Cox responded that the Bill became the Housing and Planning Act 2016 in May last year. We are waiting for the relevant Regulations to come into force so we can implement or act on the proposed changes.

Cllr Emily Smith, on the Government’s Housing Bill

Emily headAt the Vale council meeting Weds 16th Dec, Tories tabled a motion that ‘Council endorses the Government’s Housing Bill’ (or something similar — it was much longer and panglossian (as Cllr Bob Johnson said.)

Emily Smith had this to say in her first speech to council:

The Housing Bill includes some welcome elements, such as better protection for renters from rogue landlords and new measures to bring ‘abandoned’ properties back in to use.

However, I share Shelter’s concerns that as currently drafted this Bill could actually lead to a net loss of around 180,000 affordable homes for people on low and middle incomes. The forced sell-off of council homes to fund right-to-buy discounts for housing associations will mean affordable homes currently set aside for local people could be sold on to speculators and buy-to-let landlords.

My understanding is that there is no requirement for replacement homes of the same value to be provided in the local area which could lead to the break-up of established communities and is a concern for people in rural areas especially. The Bill fails to recognise that Housing Associations will simply be trying to catch up with replacing homes rather than focussing on building new affordable homes.

The Bill seems to be driven by an ideological obsession with home ownership, but surely we still need rental homes and social housing too. We need a mix of tenures to suit people moving to the Vale for employment and affordable rents for local families saving for deposits, so that communities are not broken up. Even if everyone did want to buy a home, my understanding is the Housing Bill states an affordable home can be worth up to £450,000*. In the Vale the average salary is under £30,000. Are Cllr Cox and Cllr Murray suggesting that £450,000 is affordable for local families? [*Cllr Murray explained that the cap for affordable homes outside London is actually £250,000]

We clearly need to build more homes to the tune of 300,000 a year to have a real impact on housing availability and costs. If all the developers that have already been granted planning permission for housing got on and built them, we would probably be able to achieve that. So what does the Housing Bill offer in terms of making sure that those developers start building? Does it address the problems with supply of building materials? I am in regular contact with construction firms who tell me they struggle to recruit builders, but the Bill does not address the skills shortage we are faced with in the Vale.

And finally, we as a council have a duty of care for our most vulnerable residents and a responsibility to prevent homelessness. We have already starting to see a rise in homelessness and government changes to welfare and cuts to local government grants now threaten the funding received by homeless hostels and organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau who help people at the bottom of the housing system. At the Housing Strategy Workshop for councillors in October, attended by many of the members here, there was cross-party consensus that the only way the Vale could guarantee that no vulnerable residents are homeless would be to increase council owned or managed housing stock. But this bill encourages the selling-off of council and housing association properties – the opposite of what we need right now.

In my opinion, this Housing Bill is ill thought through and a missed opportunity to ensure the affordable homes we need are built. It is also undermines our ability to provide for the Vale’s most vulnerable residents and low income families. Therefore I cannot support this motion to endorse the Bill as a whole.

 

Oxford Mail Issue: Should Vale build houses in Green Belt between Abingdon and Oxford?

Oxford Mail invited me to write the NO! response. It took them a bit longer than they thought it would to find someone to write the opposing view. Matthew Barber eventually agreed. (He would have to, wouldn’t he?)

Neither of us saw what the other one wrote. But there’s a surprising amount of overlap.

Check it out ( I do repeatedly send them a new, nicer photo, but they keep using these olde crone ones) : http://bit.ly/1VtmIfG

Cabinet: Meeting Oxford’s Unmet Housing Need 7 Aug 2015

(I’ve edited this post after the Cabinet meeting, to include an update.)

About 25 people came to the Vale Cabinet meeting Friday morning (7th Aug 15). The agenda item was the report from head of planning about options for high level approaches to Vale’s commitment to duty to cooperate to meet Oxford’s unmet housing need.

Six spoke: CPRE, SPADE, Sunningwell PC, Radley PC, keep Cumnor Green, and I.

Cllrs Barber and Murray gamely tried to answer questions from an obviously opposed audience. I got that they were trying to reassure people that no decisions were going to be taken and this was the beginning of consultation on the subject. I also got that they see the BIG opposition to Green Belt development. (But I think they’re going to go for it anyway.)

You can find the report within the agenda on the Vale’s website here: http://democratic.whitehorsedc.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=507&MId=1980&Ver=4 Scroll down to item 6. Once the minutes are published, you can see what everyone had to say to Cabinet.

Here’s what I had to say:

Vale’s report specifically refers to a ‘proven’ need for more housing than Oxford can accommodate.

Although I understand that Oxford isn’t being seen to be doing enough to help itself, as far as I’m aware there isn’t any legal provision for determining if any declared need is ‘proven’ or not. When the Oxfordshire Growth Board’s process for handling disagreement reaches its effective limit, the issue is dropped into a filing cabinet and nothing further is done. I would encourage the Growth Board to re-address this problem amongst yourselves. Personally, I expect Oxford will do little more that it has already done, and their neighbours will have to provide. It puts to question the meaning of ‘cooperation’.

I, and my Lib Dem group, remain opposed to piecemeal removal of bits of the Green Belt for housing development. We still seek a proper, independent and public Green Belt review, where the questions asked are honestly answered. There’s no sign of that forthcoming.

How can the various districts begin to consider options to meet Oxford’s unmet housing need before we have a completed Green Belt review, particularly, as in the case of the Vale, where Green Belt land is being considered as an option to meet the unmet need?

Once the number of extra houses neighbouring districts must build is ultimately agreed, then what? Where would the houses best be placed? To divide them equally between the four neighbouring districts seems amateurish, unfair, and ineffective. I’ve been reading that City’s housing need is greatest near their employment sites, on the eastern side of the city. That should be a consideration in deciding how best neighbouring districts can together meet the need. Consideration of proximity to jobs and provision of transport is relevant. If we build somewhere other than on the eastern edge of the city, then Oxford needs a modern and effective transport system to get people from home to work, not a old system (even an expanded OLD system) that continues to rely on the over capacity A34 and local roads.

And finally, housing need is explicitly not an exceptional circumstance that would allow for developing the green belt. If we needed green belt land in order to meet SHMA figures, then that fact should have been considered as a constraint when determining Vale’s housing targets for the Local Plan. What evidence has Vale produced to support the case for exceptional circumstances that would support development on the Green Belt?

 

The Oxford Times covered the story: http://m.oxfordtimes.co.uk/news/13582632.Applause_as_Vale_council_are_warned_not_to_destroy_villages_for_new_Oxford_homes/