Hinterland - Friday, 9 March, 2018

Brexit, some housing stories,  cold weather payments and social issues driven by the Archers – all in this week’s Hinterland.
We had a great RSN regional meeting in Sidmouth on Tuesday – look out for the minutes in due course. Our next one of these is in Durham in May – do keep your eyes peeled and try to come along.

*         *          *

Councils still without extra powers to crack down on empty homes

Some disappointing double talk here rather than direct action to empower councils to get tough over empty homes. This article tells us:

A government pledge to tackle the housing crisis by giving councils more powers to crack down on empty homes has yet to be implemented, it can be revealed, leading to calls on Theresa May to act urgently.

On Monday, as the prime minister unveiled a package of measures to boost housebuilding, the housing secretary, Sajid Javid, said ministers had already taken steps to tackle the problem of homes being left uninhabited.

He claimed local authorities had been handed the ability to charge more council tax for vacant properties, adding: “So we’re taking action on that.”

But the Guardian can reveal that the policy outlined in the Autumn budget, to allow councils to double the amount of tax levied on homes if they are left empty, has yet to be enacted.

The campaigner Guy Shrubsole, who runs the Who Owns England group, obtained an email from a government official saying the proposal “is not yet in place since it needs an amendment to primary legislation”.

UK’s trade with 70 countries will ‘fall off a cliff edge’ after Brexit unless Government acts urgently, MPs warn

This time next year we’ll potentially be heading for the exit door and this article makes me realize just how little progress we have been able to make. I fear for the impact of this un-readiness on rural economies. This article tells us:

The UK’s trade with more than 70 countries will “fall off a cliff” after Brexit, causing “significant” economic problems, unless the Government takes urgent action, MPs have warned.

The International Trade Committee said ministers need to “urgently” clarify how they will “roll over” trade deals with other countries that the UK currently has access to via the EU.

The Government’s failure to provide key details of this process will work is “disturbing” and risks causing a major hit to the economy when Britain leaves the EU, it said.

Ministers have said they intend to transfer the deals the EU has with more than 70 countries into new, bilateral deals between the UK and those countries after Brexit.

This would ensure Britain retains access to these countries’ markets even though it will no longer be a member of the EU.

However, the International Trade Committee said the Government must provide “a legally watertight and practically viable strategy”, warning there is “an urgent need for clarity” on the matter.

Two million households to get ‘big freeze’ payments

I didn’t know there was such a thing as cold weather payments. Do you think eligible rural dwellers will really be compensated by this level of additional help?

Around two million UK households will receive Cold Weather Payments of £25 each, following last week’s cold snap.

The government will pay out £50m, the largest weekly sum for five years.

The payments were triggered after temperatures in many parts of the country fell below zero Celsius for seven consecutive days.

Households in the West Midlands will get the highest pay-out of £8m, followed by £7m for homes in Yorkshire and Humberside.

To qualify, householders have to be claiming one of five benefits.

These are: Pension Credit, Income Support, Income-based Job Seekers’ Allowance, Income-related Employment and Support Allowance, or Universal Credit.

The temperature in your postcode area also needs to have remained at, or below zero, for seven days running.

Cold Weather Payments are separate to Winter Fuel Payments, which are paid to those born before August 1953.

Those eligible for Cold Weather Payments will receive the money automatically in their benefits, and within two weeks.

Disused shops could be used to tackle housing crisis, says May

This is an agenda which has been around for a long-time and is perhaps a useful but one to of the least imaginative responses to our emptying out town centres. I for one would like to preserve business and commerce in these settings. In my experience the biggest challenge for retailers is often business rates. Shame we in Local Government are going to have to increasingly live off this sources of income!

Former shops could be turned into homes as online shopping reshapes high streets, Theresa May has said, as she called for a “great national effort” by the government, developers and councils to tackle the housing crisis.

Answering questions after a speech in London on Monday, the prime minister said fresh approaches were needed, including using disused buildings of various types to create new homes.

Asked whether this should include retail spaces, May said it was important to prevent high streets from being hollowed out.

“Retailing is changing, with buying more goods online, and one of the elements of the new planning rules we’re setting out is to make it easier for shops to be turned into housing if that’s appropriate, but also for development above retail units to take place,” she said.

“Often there’s a very good argument for having homes being built in the centre of town, accessible to shops, accessible to transport infrastructure as well. And greater extension upwards can be, I think, one of the solutions for ensuring we’re building enough homes.”

In a 25-minute speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute conference, May described what she called a broken housing market and a resultant loss of social mobility and community, with younger people justifiably angry at being excluded, increased exploitation of renters and a problem of rough sleeping.

Overcoming this required a united effort, she continued. “It’s so important, not just for individuals, and for that British dream, but for communities, and people’s stake in the communities, that they’re able to feel that they do have a home of their own.

‘We said it wasn’t acceptable’: how Bristol is standing up to developers

Now this is the sort of focused action I would like to see in some of our rural towns and districts. The article, all about Bristol, tells us:

Last autumn, campaigners scored an unprecedented victory. The target was “viability assessments”: dossiers produced by housing developers to justify the amount of affordable housing – or lack thereof – in their developments, and which are frequently used during the construction process to shrug off previous commitments.

“Developers were saying, ‘We can’t afford to put 30-40% affordable housing in here,’ to make the profits they are legally entitled to,” says Louie Herbert, spokesperson for Bristol-born tenants union Acorn. “But all of their numbers – how much they projected to sell the houses for, how much they bought the land for – were redacted.”

Acorn, along with the Bristol Cable media co-operative, campaigned for the full release of these files. Following a public outcry, the council voted to make the viability assessments public.

Now, Herbert says, the public can examine these assessments themselves, and make sure that more affordable housing is built in their areas.

In response, Andrew Whitaker, planning director at the Home Builders Federation (HBF), argues that those without formal training “may feel that the figures set out in such assessments are ‘too high’ or ‘too low’ and make representations and decisions accordingly, rather than based on the evidence.”

For now, it’s too soon to tell if publishing the viability assessments has achieved change in Bristol. But it’s a small step that could point the way for cities such as London, where viability assessments remain pervasive, or Manchester, where in contravention of the city’s own guidelines, none of the nearly 15,000 planned new developments have any provision for affordable housing.

Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, believes that it sends a signal to developers: “We’re a great city to do business in – but we want the right kind of money.”

‘The Archers made me realise I was a victim of domestic abuse

I personally find the Archers stero-typically boring. I have to admit in relation to this article however that it is a bit more contemporary and relevant than I usually give it credit for. It tells us:

A high-profile domestic abuse storyline on The Archers in 2015 encouraged many other victims to seek help. One woman has told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme she only realised she had been in a controlling relationship when she listened to the BBC Radio 4 serial.

“The first time I realised what was happening to Helen, I felt something fall inside – your insides turn to water, because it was so familiar, just exactly the way it is,” says Helen Walmsley-Johnson.

The plot on The Archers depicted the gradually unfolding abuse of Helen Titchener by her controlling husband, Rob.

It was praised for its realism by domestic violence charities, who credited it with fuelling a rise in calls to the national domestic violence helpline by almost a fifth.

Ms Walmsley-Johnson says she did not know how to describe what had happened to her 10 years earlier until she heard the story and realised the similarities with her own life.

“The whole love thing, sweeping you off your feet and charming the socks off you, happens very quickly,” she says.

“The control part comes in very slowly underneath all that. So by the time that’s getting a grip on you, you are completely head over heels in love. It’s a distorted version of a normal relationship.”


Sign up to our newsletter to receive all the latest news and updates.