Monday, 11 February 2013

Reading Conservatives refuse to provide clarity about their own policies

I received the following email from one of our Conservative MPs late last week  (I have waited a couple of days to put it on in case the other wanted to reply separately).

I am somewhat disappointed that he has not only failed to apologise for the misleading statements made prior to the general election but also actually ignored my question.  I reproduce the letter below along with my original letter.  Sadly it seems that no less a senior figure than the PPS to Jeremy Hunt needs to resort to name-calling instead of answering my direct questions.

I do however have a few comments on this reply.  Firstly he accuses me of inaccuracy, while not providing a single example of where he thinks I have been inaccurate.  


It should also have been obvious that the reason for my question (what would the Conservatives do if they took over Reading council?) was that council's have a choice and incidentally he also  fails to address that housing associations which are not accountable locally may also introduce fixed term tenancies.


As I said in council, to Cllr Ballsdon, we can disagree about this and I hve no objection to her taking a different position:  the key is that the public need to know what we plan so that they can vote accordingly.


Regarding the claims regarding house building I could quote my own set of statistics, but I suspect it is more credible for readers to look at the independent analysis available a few clicks away:  C4 factchecker is (and another one here) worth a read though to provide some context.  It is probably also worth reading this Guardian article
It has been admitted at the highest levels that Affordable rent was brought in to enable at least some housing to be built by housing associations after the slash in investment in affordable housing immediately after the 2010 general election. 



My original letter is below:  

Dear Mr Sharma, Mr Wilson and Cllr Ballsdon,
I am writing to you today following statements from the Conservative Group last week at council regarding social housing.
Before the 2010 General Election I and, I believe, many in Reading were somewhat reassured by public statements regarding social housing as follows:
“I want to make it absolutely 100 per cent clear that people’s tenancies will be absolutely guaranteed with the Conservatives and that we will not ‘equalise’ rents with the private sector.” (Rob Wilson MP)
“We have made it crystal clear in our manifesto that we will respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants.
We know residents across Reading have great pride in their homes and the neighbourhood in which they live. Conservatives recognise the importance of social housing and the security it provides. 
(Alok Sharma MP)
Since then in parliament Mr Sharma and Mr Wilson have voted for the introduction of fixed term tenancies nationally and so-called ‘affordable rents’ which are based on market rents not on affordability.
I believe it is very disappointing that you chose to say one thing before the election and do another after the election.  I believe this is bad for politics.
As well as my obvious disagreement with the way you voted, it was fundamentally wrong to have used words before the election to suggest that tenures and rents would not be changed.   I believe you owe Reading’s residents and the local press an apology.
However in the council meeting, and repeated on her blog, Cllr Ballsdon has now stated a still more extreme view that
“the country cannot afford to let residents new into social housing have a home for life”
I believe that the security given by council and other social housing offers many benefits including allowing tenants to take on a promotion at work or increase their hours without being afraid that they will be forced from their homes as a result.  It also helps children to perform better at school, since they don’t need to keep moving school.  This is without the many community benefits that Mr Sharma referred to in his comments before the election.
Please can you clarify your position? Should the Conservatives gain control of Reading Borough Council would you introduce fixed term tenancies for new council tenants?
Regarding the issue of affordable rent, please can you clarify what you would say to the 47% of working households in Reading that cannot afford to rent a 3 bedroom house at 80% of market rent?  I believe that working people on household incomes of less than £30,000 should be able to afford to live in a 3 bed house if that is what their family needs.  Would you disagree? 
I understand the bind that housing associations are in to find ways of funding social housing.  While in the 13 years of Labour government almost 3000 social homes were built in Reading, under the Conservative-led government the annual figure is likely to be far lower.  
I would ask that as MPs and a Conservative councillor you make the case to national government for Reading. What Reading needs is the government to reverse the slash in investment in social housing so that residents afford decent homes.  Please make this case to government as Reading’s representatives.
I am making this letter publicly available on my blog and will also make public your response.  I believe residents deserve clarity on their representatives’ views on this vital issue.

And the reply:


Dear Councillor Eden, 
Re: Your letter of 4th February 2013 
In your letter of 4th February 2013 on “Conservative Social Housing Policy”, you accuse Alok Sharma MP and me of having misled Reading’s residents and the local press by virtue of our pre-election commitments to respect the tenancies and rents of social housing tenants, and then subsequently after the General Election having voted for the introduction of fixed term tenancies nationally and the introduction of intermediate rents under the Affordable Rent Model. You state that “it was fundamentally wrong to have used words before the election to suggest that tenures and rents would not be changed.” You further state that this is “bad for politics”.


What is bad for politics is inaccurate scaremongering. Not for the first time in recent weeks, a Reading Labour representative has issued a statement that is riddled with errors. 
As you well know, the introduction of fixed-term tenancies is optional for local councils and in any case does not affect the security and rights of existing social tenants.  

Nor does the Affordable Rent policy affect existing social tenants’ rights or rents (https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/improving-the-rented-housing-sector--2/supporting-pages/providing-affordable-homes-for-rent). The Affordable Rent Model specifically applies to newaffordable homes and empty social rent properties that are available to re-let. Indeed, housing associations will only be able to convert vacant properties to Affordable Rent where they have reached an investment agreement with the Home and Communities Agency about how additional rental income will be reinvested in the supply of new affordable housing. 
It

So it is completely inaccurate to suggest, as you do, that anyone’s tenures have been “changed”. I hope you apologise immediately for misleading people.

What you conspicuously failed to mention is that there are 1.8 million households across the country on waiting lists for social housing, a number that rose markedly when Labour was in Government. 
These people simply can’t get the housing they need, both because there isn’t enough social housing and because of significant imbalances between the size of households and the properties they live in. While there are around a quarter of a million overcrowded households in social housing (measured against the bedroom standard) there are also over 400,000 households under-occupying their social homes by two bedrooms or more (measured against the bedroom standard). 
It is irresponsible of you to ignore these problems in order to pursue scaremongering for political reasons.


The whole point of the new “intermediate” rents introduced by the Affordable Rent model is to raise additional money for reinvestment in the development of new social and affordable housing to tackle the shortage. 
Similarly, fixed term tenancies could provide local councils with the flexibility to deal with such imbalances in future and ensure homes go to those in greatest need in their area, better meet the needs of current and future tenants and cut waiting lists. This is an issue worthy of mature consideration. 

Given that it is expected that in most cases the minimum term of fixed tenancies on offer will be five years, it is nonsense to suggest that children might “need to keep moving school.” 
It is disappointing that you have not done your homework in sufficient detail to understand your brief.

Finally, you suggest that “while in the 13 years of Labour government almost 3000 social homes were built in Reading, under the Conservative-led government the annual figure is likely to be far lower.” Again, you don’t mention the fact that in the last year of the Labour Government (2009-10), only 115,000 newly-built homes were completed in England – fewer than any year in peace time since the 1920s. Nearly 250,000 homes in England had stood empty for more than 6 months. This has led to a shortage of housing and a lack of affordable housing in many parts of the country. Nor do you mention that the level of social housing nationwide under the previous Labour Government fell by some 421,000 homes.
The Government now estimates that the combination of new investment of £4.2 billion and greater flexibility for social housing providers will lead to 170,000 additional new affordable homes between 2011 and 2015. The Government is also providing housing debt guarantees to support the building of new affordable homes, enabling registered social housing providers to raise debt with a government guarantee, where they commit to delivering additional new-build affordable homes. This will help to reduce their borrowing costs, increasing the number of new homes they can afford to provide. The Government is also committing £1.6 billion to the Decent Homes programme to help local councils with the 217,000 council houses that were in such a poor state of repair that they didn’t meet the minimum standard - another bill we've been left to pick up by the previous Labour Government.
It is ironic that you should make this attack the week after the announcement that this Government has given local councils £1.3 billion so far as a reward for new homes built in their areas between 2010 and 2012.  Reading Borough Council will get £2 million next year in respect of the new homes built in the first three years of the New Homes Bonus scheme. Under this Conservative-led Government, the local council has a real incentive to enable more housebuilding, which should make housing more affordable for all.


Given the local investments that I have championed and delivered for Reading, including the Reading Station upgrade, the world-class new University Technical College and the £500 million Reading-Heathrow rail link, you can take it as read that I will “make the case to national government for Reading” and will continue to do so.
 In turn, I hope that you will stop this line of scaremongering and withdraw and apologise for your inaccurate accusations.
As you have chosen to put your letter in the public domain, I will do the same. 

Yours sincerely,
Rob Wilson MPMember of Parliament for Reading East