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Cllr. Geoffrey Theobald – we do need new housing but plans must be scrutinised

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Making sure that all our residents are able to access decent and affordable housing is undoubtedly one of the most pressing challenges facing this city over the next few years. Rising prices and rents in the private sector, an increasing population including a large expansion of student numbers and a severe lack of space to build new housing have all combined to make this ever more difficult in Brighton and Hove.

At the Housing & New Homes Committee last week, Council officers brought forward a proposal to try and address some of these issues – setting up a ‘joint housing venture’ with Hyde Housing Association which it is hoped will deliver 1,000 new affordable homes.
Although we agree that in principle a joint venture such as this is a good idea (the Council would effectively be doubling the number of homes built for the same level of investment) we do feel that the proposals have been rushed through. The Conservative Group was only given a detailed briefing by officers two days before the meeting and this was at my own request.

We also have concerns about some of the financial details and potential risks to council taxpayers. For example, the Council is proposing to borrow £50 million against its General Fund yet has not carried out a tendering exercise to determine whether Hyde’s offer represents the best value for money. As a result, at the meeting our Committee members spent a long time asking very detailed questions about the plans, and in the end proposed that the decision is deferred for a couple of months in order to further explore some of these issues.

Unfortunately, the Labour Chair of the Committee didn’t take too kindly to this and accused one of our members in particular – Cllr. Joe Miller – of ‘playing games’. This is a comment which I hope she now regrets in the cold light of day. Setting up a joint housing venture is an extremely important decision for the Council and Joe and his colleagues in our Group were quite right to question officers and lawyers forensically on the potential risks to council taxpayers. In fact, had they not done so it would have been a dereliction of their duty. I can remember being in a similar situation when I was first elected to Brighton Council, being attacked by older members for doing my job, and so I back Joe 100%.

There is cross party agreement on the Council on the seriousness of the housing crisis and we really want to see this proposal succeed. Indeed, in our last local election manifesto we put forward a similar proposal for the Council to borrow money to build new homes. When we were in Administration in 2009 we also set up an innovative new company to refurbish some of the Council’s worst housing stock – a project which has been very successful.

However, the pressing need to take action does not mean that any proposals put forward by the Administration should be immune from proper scrutiny, particularly when such large sums of public money are involved.