HMOs, housing woes and the blueprint for the future - we lift the lid on the big property issues facing South Tynside

For every local authority, housing brings its own set of challenges.

Monday, 26th August 2019, 16:45 pm
Picture by Tim Richardson

In South Tyneside, council bosses are at a crucial juncture as they set out the future of housing over the next 17 years in their local plan.

The document reveals plans to build nearly 5,000 homes in the borough by 2036 to meet government housing targets.

Under the blueprint, a list of sites are on the table with the majority of homes planned for South Shields, East Boldon, West Boldon and Boldon Colliery.

South Tyneside Housing Ventures Trust scheme, Joseph Collins House in Jarrow

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However, the plan forms only part of the council’s work around housing.

This includes supporting vulnerable residents, preventing homelessness and giving people a foot on the property ladder.

According to council chiefs, providing the right mix of housing is still a key priority.

As the first draft of the local plan entered consultation this month, we spoke to Coun Mark Walsh, cabinet member for housing and transport.

Cabinet member for housing and transport, Coun Mark Walsh

Against the backdrop of uncertainty around government housing policy, he said the council has continued to be proactive.

In recent years, £100million has been invested into bringing housing stock up to standard and beyond.

There has also been a focus on building safety with a £1.4million investment into installing sprinklers in high-rise blocks.

However, Coun Walsh has said government can do more including devolving more powers to councils.

Sky Room provided through the council's ‘Housing Plus’ scheme

This includes speeding up the process of bringing derelict sites into use and compulsory purchase powers to allow councils to “regenerate areas with flexibility.”

A key ask also includes powers to allow councils to influence and work with the private rented sector – especally around houses in multiple occupation (HMOs).

South Tyneside’s ‘housing mix’

The council currently owns a large proportion of social housing stock which it lets out under South Tyneside Homes (STH).

Housing Ventures Trust, set up in 2013 by the council and STH, offers affordable housing for rent with more than 400 properties built.

The firm is seen as a key force in bringing empty homes back into use with 43 so far and a further 10 planned.

According to council documents, there are currently 67,203 properties in the borough.

Of this number, 57% are owner-occupied, 25% council rented and around 10% in the private rented sector.

However, the private sector itself has more than doubled over the past 10 years with many people turning to private landlords.

Coun Walsh said: “Recently, we celebrated the centenary of the Addison Act 1919 which aimed to build ‘homes fit for heroes’ – back then there were 80% of homes in the private rented sector.

“Because they were in such a bad state, the government rightly recognised that local authorities should have a role to play in providing suitable homes.

“While the private rented sector is much smaller now, it still plays an important and significant role – that’s not just about HMOs but private flats and houses.”

Council plans to improve the sector include setting up a company to take over private properties and improve standards.

The process, Coun Walsh explained, aims to “nudge up the market by providing a certain standard” – as some people are not eligible to get onto social housing.

Other projects in the pipeline include Centaurea Homes, a company set up by the council to develop houses for sale.

This aims to turn around unwanted and unloved sites to boost the council’s housing supply and turn a profit – with funds invested back into other income streams.

The first planning application for 62 homes in Jarrow – and the pilot project for the scheme – could be approved on August 27 by the council’s Planning Committee.

In the private sector, the council still has powers to keep rogue landlords in check including fines as an alternative to prosecution.

The new policy, adopted in June, includes charges of £600 to £30,000 for offences around overcrowding, licensing and management of HMOs.

HMOS

In recent months, an HMO investigation was launched by the council’s Place Select Committee over concerns about the support available for vulnerable tenants.

Common themes raised throughout the process have included possible links to crime and concerns about management practices in the private rented sector.

Despite requests from councillors to ‘map’ HMOs, officers have been unable to give figures on the total number of private shared houses / flats in the borough.

But Coun Walsh said perceptions need to shift around HMOs and social housing in general.

“HMOs are a fit for some people but I think where it doesn’t work are places such as the town centre where they have people who really need support as they have drug or alcohol addictions or both,” he said.

“When people are left to their own devices they need the support and that support usually isn’t there with an HMO.

“It’s not just HMOs, it’s also about social housing in general. For many years there has been a stigmatisation around social housing.

“I grew up in a council house and it was and still is a great community, but over the years there has been the stigmatisation of ‘it’s a council estate’ and that’s unfair to the people who live there.

“We need to move away from that and realise we have a mixed market of housing.”

On HMOs, Coun Walsh said it was important not to look at HMOs in isolation.

He added a key focus includes working with landlords to “help them step up to the mark” and “getting the right support in there.”

Housing security and Universal Credit

The council’s Integrated Housing Strategy, agreed earlier this year, combined both housing and homelessness strategies into a single document.

This followed changes in government legislation placing more responsibility on councils to prevent homelessness.

While South Tyneside Council has a range of support services available to help people maintain their tenancies, other factors can put people at risk.

This includes Universal Credit which is already having an impact on tenants, with levels of arrears for council homes on the rise.

Coun Walsh, who used to work in welfare rights, said he understood the principle of the scheme around combining legacy benefits into one payment.

But he criticised its roll-out which, he claimed, puts more pressure on housing services.

“As a consequence, people who are facing more rent arrears, we’re having to use our discretionary housing payment to its full extent in every financial year to help people maintain their tenancies.

“There has been an increase in rent arrears but South Tyneside Homes has recently invested in the way they manage their tenants, offering help, support and advice.”

He added: “Universal Credit is a mess and it’s the local people who are facing the consequences of that.

“It’s the local authority along with its partners such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Age UK who are left to pick the pieces up, and that’s what we’re doing by offering that support.”

Blueprint for the future

Local plans aim to give councils control over sites to ensure housing is built in a sustainable way with the right infrastructure in place.

South Tyneside Council’s plan will go through several stages of consultation before being submitted to the government for inspection.

In Sunderland’s local plan, controversy dogged proposals to build homes on the green belt with four sites removed since the draft plans were first revealed.

A further three are also recommended to be removed following an examination by a government-appointed planning inspector.

A similar conflict between protecting the green belt while meeting housing targets is also expected in South Tyneside.

Currently, 17 sites on green belt are outlined for development- equating to less than 5% of total green space.

Coun Walsh admitted that the green belt would be a challenge for the local plan but stressed the process was in its early stages.

“South Tyneside has a limited number of brownfield sites we can go into and I think sometimes some of the issues about how green belt is defined is something of a grey area,” he said.

“I think the big challenge from the local plan is how do we develop sustainable and affordable homes without impacting too hugely on the green belt.

“We’re going to have more sustainable environmentally-friendly homes as the world moves on, from 2025 we can’t put gas [boilers] in any new builds because of the impact it has upon the climate.

“So building and development is going to have to be cleverer around developing our housing.

“The big challenge, like Sunderland, will be the challenge around the green belt sites.”

'Homes are more than just bricks and mortar'

Looking forward, South Tyneside Council aim to work with partners to provide social housing and properties to both rent and buy.

Key goals include providing age-appropriate accommodation, creating a sustainable future for affordable housing and driving up standards in the private sector.

Housing is also needed for major developments such as the International Advanced Manufacturing Park near Sunderland’s Nissan plant – a joint project from both Sunderland City Council and South Tyneside Council expected to create thousands of jobs.

Coun Walsh added his personal goal was to provide the right mix of homes to meet the needs of all South Tyneside residents – from people with long-term health needs to families.

He added: “We have targets of nearly 5,000 new homes we have to build to meet these government targets and if we can keep our strategy refreshed and the action plan refreshed, we have that market out there.

“At the end of the day, homes are more than just bricks and mortar, they’re a part of the community.

“There’s a former councillor who always said that for him, housing was the core of everything that we do.

“If you’re happy in your home and feel safe in your home then you will stay there and it stabilises communities.

“If we can promote all of that through our integrated strategy across South Tyneside then that for me is a job well done.”

South Tyneside residents are encouraged to have their say on the draft local plan with a range of community drop-in events in coming weeks.

The consultation will run until Friday, October 11.

For more information or to request an event in your area contact the council or visit: www.southtyneside.gov.uk/article/36012/Emerging-Local-Plan