A response to Cllr Smith

Cllr Anthony Negus responds to misleading statements from Bristol's Cabinet Member for Housing.

I am sorry that there has been some concerns about my housing questions to Cabinet last week. The first was about the new housing company which we broadly support as it can deliver a wide-ranging of affordable housing types. The second was about the poor state of the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) nationally, but particularly in Bristol. The Lib Dems are in favour of social housing and building more. The point of my question, but not the un-matching answer that was given by Cllr. Paul Smith and then widely picked up, was to highlight factors that made social house-building very difficult to achieve and, particularly, sustain in Bristol.

So long as there is Right-to-Buy (which Bristol Lib Dems oppose in its current form) where two-thirds of each home sold is handed to Westminster there is no sustainable business plan for replacement building. While there is the present funding system which means that the Bristol HRA is right up against its cap for borrowing and while council house rents have been forced down so that the HRA revenue viability is threadbare we cannot finance or plan new building. We want to change these so that we can have a working model that is sustainable and allows us to plan forward for the strategic decisions that are necessary to provide social housing in numbers that will make a real difference.

Councillor Smith was reliably disingenuous in his response because I have talked with him on many occasions about my own and Lib Dem support for the thrust of his housing proposals. This is much to do with them being LibDem proposals before his time and, as I reminded him, I was the Cabinet member who started the first council house building after 30 years of Labour control. His long read-out sermon in response to my required one minute questions, probably prepared by one of the administrations’ many political advisers, was therefore pure political opportunism. He focused on the second HRA question no doubt to take heat away from the administrations’ housing companies which will work with private housebuilders, which is opposed by Momentum. This has led to the forced standing down of Cllr. Claire Kober, the Labour leader in the London Borough of Haringey and probably many deselections of middle-left Labour councillors.

Now, while we all rather like headlines and showing ourselves as being right, I believe we  achieve more in this council by opening up suppressed issues and by co-operation between councillors from all parties. The successful Lib Dem motions on student mitigation, plastic cups and the libraries are testament to this. As Lib Dem councillors we more than most put our heads above the parapet and so need to have pretty tough skins.  I accept the occasional (actually frequent) bruising and have got used to it being unfair, though we are now scoring much more highly with the media. But let me correct Cllr. Smith – the Lib Dems in coalition capped council house rents. It was the Conservatives later in 2015 who cut them in order to reduce benefit payments and at the same time weakening the ability of the HRA to deliver social housing.

What concerns me most is if our messages are being misunderstood by our own members, particularly those who commit their time to contribute to our policy development and strengthening our organisation amongst our increasing membership. I would be happy to hear from anyone who feels that my questions were out of line or even misdirected. Our group has directed a lot of fire on a lot of issues and we are punching way above our weight. That is clear from the amount of energy this administration, and the last mayor, has spent on trying to put us down.

I see little value in publicly nibbling at policies with which we broadly agree but we will all continue to shine the light of common sense on issues that sound fine but which cannot deliver to expectations without better consideration. In essence we are an opposition party but also a critical friend concerning those policies we believe to be generally the right way forward. I would be happy to defend this approach if it were to be the topic of a future discussion, amongst friends.

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