Why we need a Fairness Commission

Yesterday Andy Hull from Islington Council addressed a meeting of Labour Party members describing why and how Islington set up a Fairness Commission and what effect it has had. A Fairness Commission is one our our ten pledges which Labour will deliver on if we take control of the city council in May.

Around 20 councils have now undertaken a Fairness Commission. A Commission was set up in Islington because it is now recognised by many, following the debate around the Spirit Level, that greater income equality produces better outcomes for everyone, not just those at the bottom of the scale. It was also a recognition that however difficult things are in terms of public spending at local level, it is still possible to act locally in ways that make things fairer. In common with Islington, Brighton and Hove has a diverse population income-wise with very different experiences of living in the city and very different expectations from life, and addressing these fundamental inequalities is something we as a local council should be setting as a high priority.

The commission itself in Islington was cross-party and cross-functional with only a small proportion of the panel from the council itself. A big effort was made to reach out to different types of people, particularly vulnerable people whose voices are often not heard in the political melee, like those with learning disabilities for example. The actions proposed by Fairness Commissions are different in each locality so it would be important not to try and pre-empt what the proposals might be.

In Islington, nineteen actions were proposed and have formed the basis of the council’s plans and spending priorities ever since. These include areas such as the living wage and wage equality, housing provision and energy efficiency. They also included setting up a citizens’ advice bureau, initiatives to get more children reading, and a giving and volunteer scheme which has raised over £2m and mobilised over 500 volunteers.

Difficult decisions had to be made. For example, the new citizen’s advice bureau (CAB) was established at the expense of the Green Living Centre, a popular resource providing information about environmentally-friendly living. Reluctantly the council had to conclude that a new CAB would make more of a difference (although the Green Living Centre still appears to be in operation). In Brighton and Hove we will undoubtedly be faced with similar choices.

In Hollingdean and Stanmer, which includes a high proportion of child poverty and low aspiration as well as two universities, educational and aspirational inequality is very keenly felt. The city has a high number of students and residents with graduate degrees alongside a lower than average proportion gaining five A-C level GCSE’s. I see educational inequality as a really big issue in this ward in particular and would be interested in following up any recommendations for giving more people better educational outcomes.

I’m also really interested in the fundraising and volunteer mobilisation achievements in Islington. Fundraising included involving some of the more elite and well-heeled local businesses and residents with which Islington is perhaps most associated. Comfortably-off older residents were, for example, encouraged to donate their winter fuel allowance. While Labour does not support a 6% increase in council tax, if those people who do support it were willing to contribute an equivalent amount on a voluntary basis, that could be the starting point for a generalised “community fund” which could really help. In terms of volunteers, the city sees a great deal of active citizenship and I feel that if this were better focused and directed, a lot could be done with it to benefit the city.

What kind of state do we want? Labour versus Conservative

I found it helpful to read what Ed Miliband actually said in his deficit speech recently – as opposed to all the commentary about the speech. It describes the clear distinction between Labour and the Conservatives in terms of what kind of a public sector we want in the future.

The Tories want to reduce spending, not because of the deficit but because a smaller state is their ideological preference. The spending cuts they envisage will make it impossible to maintain the kinds of public services we have now. Countries with low levels of public spending like the USA and Japan don’t have things that we take for granted like free healthcare, a state pension you can live on and a lifelong social security safety net.

Servicing the deficit is costing us a lot of money so it needs to be brought down but the coalition government has been unsuccessful at doing this because we need to restructure the economy. Even with economic growth, tax receipts are too low because we have too many people on low pay, zero hours contracts and below the living wage. We need to address the cost of living crisis in order to pay off the deficit, eg with a youth employment guarantee, a higher minimum wage and ruling out damaging zero hours contracts.

Capital spending that generates growth and tax revenues is a good thing and we should be doing it. Where we need to save money is in the day-to-day costs. Labour will move to a current budget surplus within the next parliament but will not be tied in to an arbitrary date: public services are too important for target dates to dictate what we do and don’t do. This will mean some cuts to services, but only what is essential to reduce the deficit, not for its own sake.

Labour will also generate tax revenues through a 50% tax band for the wealthiest, a mansion tax, a bankers’ bonus tax and closing boardroom tax loopholes. The Tories on the other hand have announced tax cuts without saying how they will be funded, and that is on top of the spending cuts.

There is a clear difference between Labour and Conservatives in terms of public spending – in actual money terms this amounts to billions of pounds over the next 5 years (see this FT article). In many areas, particularly those which have not been ring-fenced, it will mean the difference between having public services, even with reduced running costs, and not having them at all.

Council tax relief and a referendum

The recent headlines about a vote on council tax relief do not reflect that this issue is really all about whether we should have a referendum on council tax rates.

Those on the lowest incomes currently pay 8.5% of what everyone else pays towards council tax. This relief scheme is administered by local councils which have had the funding for it cut by local government. The Greens originally proposed on increasing the contribution that people made to 25%. It has now been agreed, by vote, that the contribution will be 15%. This is amongst the most generous of relief rates for unitary councils across the country.

To keep the contribution as low as 8.5%, council tax would need to be increased by 6%, and this increase would need to be agreed via a referendum. The Greens already know that Labour is against increasing council tax by this amount, and that we do not support a referendum. So the idea that council tax relief stays at the same rate, which Labour “voted against” is based on money that everyone already knows we don’t have.

Why are we against a tax increase and referendum? We know that many in the city would struggle with this increase. It would also push many people who do not currently qualify for council tax reduction into poverty, thus increasing the number who qualify, making the funding gap even worse.

As for a referendum, while the idea that councils can raise additional taxes if agreed through referenda sounds attractive, the specific rules set by the government for this referendum make the whole idea unfeasible. The only time the vote can take place is in May 2015 at the same time as the general and local elections. But the annual budget has to be agreed in February with bills going out in March. It makes no sense to set a budget and bill taxpayers at a higher rate, then ask for their consent in a vote two months later. The resentment that this alone will cause is probably enough in itself to ensure a No result. In addition, the wording to be used on the ballot paper has been set down by the government, and they have managed to construct an entire two paragraphs of text in order to ask the question, surely prompting anyone who might not be entirely clear what it means to vote No.

The government’s proposal is not about genuine democracy. It’s designed to embarrass councils who try it by almost guaranteeing a No result, and it will also cost a lot of money to hold. It looks like localism, but it isn’t. That’s why we have consistently rejected the referendum proposal and why, in turn, we have had to reject the Greens’ new idea that council tax relief stays at the same rate.

Our amendment, however, did add half a million pounds to help those worst affected, and gives additional support to carers and people with disabilities. It also built in transitional protection limiting the increase to £2.50 a week. It’s also worth pointing out that the 16,000 figure quoted widely in the media as the number affected is inaccurate, since all pensioners are exempt.

The Council can and should do more on HMOs

The actions below are proposed by Labour candidates in areas which are affected by the rapid proliferation of houses of multiple occupancy. As well as campaigning for their inclusion in the Labour manifesto for the 2015 local election, we will be asking the council directly to adopt these actions.

HMO Licensing and registration in Article Four areas

Labour Manifesto Process Discussion Points

  1. The council should use all data available to proactively identify existing HMOs, including the council tax and/or electoral register rather than just waiting for public input.
  2. Set a cut-off date by which time all existing HMOs will have been identified, such as the end of July 2015. (this date for policy planning purposes only at this time)
  3. Advise all HMO applicants after the cut-off date that an HMO license cannot be processed until planning consent has been given.
  4. Currently, properties without planning permission or an HMO licence are being marketed to tenants by both landlords and letting agents. The council should clearly advise all HMO applicants that planning consent should be granted before the property is used as an HMO; that HMO licensing requires that the property meets particular specifications and if these are not met a license may not be granted; and that any risk that tenants have been exposed to due to the use of the property contrary to planning permission is entirely the responsibility of the owner and/or letting agent.
  5. From this point on, letting agents which are accredited by the council and are still advertising properties for a use as an HMO would be doing so contrary to planning permission. The council should write to all accredited letting agents which market properties in Article 4 areas, and advise them that planning consent is required for any HMO conversions and that until that consent has been granted the property should not be marketed to potential tenants. Failure to do this by the letting agent should result in loss of their accreditation
  6. Sales agents sometimes claim that they do not know of the planning restrictions when marketing properties to buy-to-let investors. This is not acceptable. We ask the council to draw up an Information Pack, downloadable from the website, explaining all of the restrictions around HMO licensing and planning in Article 4 areas, and ask sales agents to pass it to all potential buyers in those areas. A paper copy should also be given to all sales agents by the council.
  7. The council should set up a landlords’ registration scheme with annual fees which reflect the full and complete cost to the council of providing services to HMOs and their impact on the community. These services all cost money. Many HMO landlords operate several properties as a business and do not pay business rates to the council. Similarly, students do not pay council tax even though the council provides many services to students living in residential areas. The money to fund these services has to be found from somewhere.

Policy proposal from

Tracey Hill (Labour candidate for Hollingdean & Stanmer)

Chris Taylor (Labour candidate for Hanover & Elm Grove)

Noisy Neighbours? A quick guide

This blog contains some information from the environmental protection team at the council who were represented at the Hanover and Elm Grove Local Action Team meeting (HEGLAT) I went to recently, and also some info from the Sussex community liaison officer.

It’s a time of year when many people have new neighbours, and there are parties going on because it’s the beginning of the university term. That’s not to say that all problems with noise are due to students – there are plenty of lovely quiet student houses, and a fair number of noisy non-student households. However, some of the problems are with student houses not least because they are on a different schedule so can socialise later at night and on weekdays which can clash with families needing to get a night’s sleep before school or work.

The first thing to do is to talk to them (if you feel it’s safe to do this) to make sure they understand the problem and give them a chance to correct it. That seems fair enough and it may be that they are just a bit thoughtless and that does the trick. In the meantime, start making a note of dates and times. This is because the council will want a noise diary (see below).

If talking didn’t help, and you think it’s a student house, you can contact the following people:

  • University of Sussex . Housing Team – Mark Woolford. 01273 678219. email m.a.woolford@sussex.ac.uk
  • University of Brighton : Community Liaison Officer – Kevin Mannall 01273 643102. k.mannall@brighton.ac.uk, or Andrew Keefe A.W.B.Keeffe@brighton.ac.uk
  • Also see: http://www.brighton.ac.uk/about-us/contact-us/community-liaison-team/index.aspx
  • BIMM (Brighton Institute of Modern Music): Accommodation Officer – Jackie Phillips 07885 328411 jkephillips@supanet.com

They should be able to find out whether the household is occupied by their students, and should be prepared to intervene and talk to the students in liaison with the council.

Whether the neighbours are students or not, you can also go to the environmental protection team at the council. (EHL.environmentalprotection@brighton-hove.gov.uk). There’s some info here about how to make a complaint. There is a noise patrol team from 10pm to 3am on Friday and Saturday nights. As pointed out at the LAT, in an ideal world this would be every night, since student parties can just as often be midweek as at the weekends.

Officers stress that noise nuisance is assessed by how much it affects quality of life, and isn’t based on a certain decibel level. They may ask you to fill in a noise diary for two weeks – so that’s something you could start doing straight away. They will also need to witness the noise, so some liaison with them is necessary.

The council has the power to serve a noise abatement notice to everyone in the house. If this is broken, they will end up with a criminal record. The council also has the power to impose a fine, and seize belongings to the value of the fine. More information in this leaflet. Ideally, it wouldn’t get to that stage and between the council and the university teams working together the problem can be resolved.

At the LAT meeting there were some comments about some areas starting to be seen as “student areas” where it’s implicitly okay to make a lot of noise. This is something that really needs to be avoided. I believe more can be done to give students the right impression immediately they arrive in the city (particularly for first year students who are living out, or living in halls that are adjacent to residential areas). If particular effort were put into noise patrols on the first few days of term, and if the beginning-of-year parties were pointedly brought to a close at a suitable time, with warnings about continuing the noise elsewhere, that might send the right message about the importance of being quiet at night.

HMO’s and planning – what can be done

I went as an observer to tonight’s Local Action Team (LAT) meeting in Hanover and Elm Grove, because a number of council officers were there to talk about the proliferation of houses of multiple occupation (HMOs), which is also an issue in Hollingdean, Coldean and elsewhere in the ward.

It’s important to remember that not all HMOs are occupied by students, and that they are a completely legitimate form of housing for which there is a current and ongoing need. The problem is that, partly because the number of students in the city is rapidly expanding, the number of HMOs is increasing, and where there are a lot in one place can change an area quite dramatically. Each family house converted into an HMO means one less house for a local family, so we need to try to retain some of these family homes and keep a balance and healthy mix of housing types as much as possible.

To this end, there are now certain areas where planning permission is needed to convert a property from a family house into an HMO. If the housing in the immediate area is already more than 10% HMO, the application should be refused. Planning applications have successfully been refused on this basis, but there are a number of problems.

One is that the City Plan has not formally been signed off, which means that the policy of refusing planning where the density is more than 10% is not official policy. Some landlords have appealed against their application, and some of these appeals have been withheld on the basis that the 10% is not policy. However, other appeals have been dismissed – so the ruling on appeals is not very consistent. This is something the officers are hoping to sort out with the government.

Another problem is that the planning department can’t take action unless the change of use has actually occurred. So, if landlord had their planning application turned down or didn’t apply for one in the first place, the council can’t do anything to enforce this until the property is actually occupied. This is frustrating for neighbours who can see that a conversion is being done, and have even seen it being advertised as an HMO, but no action can be taken until people have actually moved in. Once that’s happened, the council can act but has to give the landlord a reasonable period of time to comply. If it’s a student house, this generally means they don’t have to comply until the end of the academic year, so that the students don’t lose their home.

A third problem is that there have been cases where an HMO license has been granted to a property which is being converted into an HMO in an area where planning permission would be required, before planning consent has actually been given. I’ve read that the licensing team cannot refuse to give a licence on the basis that the property doesn’t have planning permission, because their remit is only to look at the suitability and quality of the property and not about whether it should be an HMO in the first place. I wonder, though, why the granting of an HMO licence cannot simply be delayed until planning consent is given (or not).

In short, there are a great deal of frustrations around this, and some anger was expressed at the meeting that the issue had been around for nine years without any big improvement. I would say that in terms of the regulation, we have moved in the right direction, but it will clearly take a lot of persistence and determination to really use these regulations to regain control of our neighbourhoods. I do want to say that this isn’t about trying to drive out students or other occupants of HMOs, who add enormously to the vibrancy of the city, but to maintain a balanced community in which people of different life stages and lifestyles can live side by side.

One thing which would help is to ensure that every HMO is licensed. The licensing team think that they have now “mapped” every HMO in the city. I am not so sure. In fact, I am convinced that there are HMOs in my street and in neighbouring streets which do not appear on the published list. The council is saying that they work with LATs and take lists of properties from them in order to check them and ask for licence applications. I’m intending to find out more about how this process works and try to get HMOs fully licensed.

HMO licensing is good for tenants as well as neighbours, because the properties are quality checked for things like fire safety and insulation, and if anything is amiss the landlord is required to put it right. The HMO team is currently checking that the conditions imposed when the HMO licence was granted have in fact been met, although it sounds like it has not be doing this universally. Many of the people who express concerns about HMOs are not bothered so much about the occupants but the state of the property itself. A robust and complete licensing system will help with that.

 

Hollingdean Sure Start – petition for weekend opening

Annual play event T in the Park with the Sure Start centre open in the background

Annual play event T in the Park with the Sure Start centre open in the background

Hollingdean and Stanmer Labour candidates support local residents’ calls for the Sure Start centre next to Hollingdean Park to be opened at weekends. There is now a petition on the Council’s website we are asking people to sign.

The Sure Start building is owned by the Council. Allowing the centre to open at weekends would open the way for community activities such as a community cafe, and it would mean that the toilets would be available. This would encourage greater use of Hollingdean Park as we have seen at the annual T in the Park event pictured above.

The centre is already a valuable hub for the local community, and opening at the weekends would enhance this. There have already been inquiries from community workers who would like to hold classes at weekends but lack a suitable venue. The venue could also be used as a place to purchase cheap staple food, helping local families out in this time of hardship, and possibly other amenities like a library or book swap.

We are not asking the Council for funding or to run any of the activities in the centre at weekends, only to make the building available as a community asset. Once it’s agreed, we would then need to come together as a community to make it happen. But as a first step we need the council to be prepared to allow the centre to be open, and for officers to look favourably on this proposal.

Please sign the petition if you want to support this campaign. If you have more ideas for what else the Sure Start centre could be used for if open at weekends, or would be willing to help as a volunteer occasionally to keep the centre open, it would be great to hear from you.

Please email hollingdeanandstanmer@brightonhovelabour.com and we will pass your comments. on.

It was a vision of the last Labour government to create a Sure Start hub in every community, bringing together child care services. This remains a core part of Labour’s local government policy:

“To give every child a good start in life, Sure Start Centres should become hubs of support for children, with local services for health and family support having a duty to co-operate and co-locate to provide a single point of access in every community.”

Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce, July 2014