Oxford faces a housing crisis, and as a city council we are all too aware of the suffering the causes.
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At root, the situation is caused by too little accommodation being available - leading to rents and house prices being the least affordable outside London - and it will only be solved by a substantial expansion in supply. This in turn requires a government to have real political backbone, and accept that review of the green belt (or “green noose”, as one of my colleagues calls it) around Oxford is essential. Recent estimates suggest Oxford needs some 28,000 homes over the next 20 years, but with land for barely a quarter of that number.
Nonetheless, homelessness is being driven by more immediately difficulties as well. First and foremost, private rents in the city outstrip what many can afford. In particular, the situation is desperate for those on housing benefit: barely any properties are affordable within the local housing allowance rates set by government, meaning the council needs to look elsewhere to assist those in housing need.
Occasionally ministers berate councils for placing homeless families outside their areas. They should be under no illusions that, for Oxford City Council at least, this is a desperately reluctant choice, and is a direct consequence of government policy to uncouple housing benefit levels from housing costs in places like Oxford.
A separate, equally unwelcome challenge comes from reductions in housing-related support (once known as Supporting People). Funded by Oxfordshire CC, it faces a reduction of 38% from next year - and in draft proposals, hostels, floating support for the homeless and organisations supporting victims of domestic violence are all due to take a big hit.
This dire situation makes the councillors, officers, professionals working in the sector and, of course, many local people extremely frustrated. All of us in positions of responsibility have to do what we can to tackle these problems.
As a council, we are now building houses - with more than 100 being provided on small sites, and more than 300 council homes planned at a small urban extension to the city at Barton. Our planning policies continue to require 50% affordable housing (of which 80% is social rent, not the laughably misnamed ‘affordable rent’ product) on developments over 10 units.
We have chosen to increase funding for advice services, which play a vital role in preventing homelessness, in recent years, and continue to fund Shelter to provide independent housing advice. Our “no second night out” work, with St Mungo’s/Broadway, is doing its best in a challenging climate, working with some outstanding third sector organisations in the city. The most recent addition, Crisis Skylight, supports single homeless and vulnerably housed people to gain skills and experience, and has helped hundreds since it opened in 2011, with support from the council.
Our council has decided to maintain funding earmarked for homeless organisations for each of the next four years, in spite of substantial government cutbacks, as we know the need for their services has never been greater. Moreover, some £10m has been set aside to purchase homes for temporary accommodation in and around Oxford, with the first £2m due to come on stream this financial year.
The actions of one council in tackling homelessness will not make the problem go away - and it will get worse until house building gets the priority from government it needs. But if it prevents even one family becoming homeless, or one single person stopping for an extra night on the street, it will have been worth it.
Ed Turner (Lab), deputy leader, Oxford City Council
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