Row over Sheffield council house-building plans – ‘people have the right to a decent home’

A row has broken out over the need for new council homes in Sheffield, with leading Labour councillors arguing they should borrow big to build more.
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The debate took place at a meeting of Sheffield City Council’s strategy and resources policy committee, where councillors were discussing recommendations from the housing policy committee, which included raising council rents and other service charges by seven per cent, as previously reported.

Last week the housing committee unanimously voted for a package of measures that included reducing the number of new homes to be built in the 2023/4 stock increase programme to 2,310 from the projected 3,100 because of budget pressures and inflation increasing house-building costs.

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Housing committee co-chair Coun Douglas Johnson said: “Bottom line is, we want an extra £200 million to keep the stock increase programme back to where it was and the (borrowing) cost of that is £10 million a year, so that is the choice there.

Sheffield City Council leader Coun Terry Fox backs the idea of borrowing to fund the full number of new council homes planned to be built this yearSheffield City Council leader Coun Terry Fox backs the idea of borrowing to fund the full number of new council homes planned to be built this year
Sheffield City Council leader Coun Terry Fox backs the idea of borrowing to fund the full number of new council homes planned to be built this year

“In the context of making £23 million savings, there wasn’t much appetite for adding another £10 million on to that. Actually the programme itself hasn’t gone away, there’s still the list of sites in the pipeline that are there, ready to be built.”

He said there was an ongoing dialogue with Homes England and the South Yorkshire Combined Mayoral Authority to try to find more money: “They ought to be putting money into good housing that we need in Sheffield and we’re not talking about just any old housing but the right housing in the right place.

‘Sensible approach’

“Overall there is not really a shortage of housing in Sheffield but there is a shortage of the right housing and how it’s used.”

LibDem member of Sheffield City Council Coun Joe Otten challenged Labour leaders to say how they would fund the extra cost of building new council homes this yearLibDem member of Sheffield City Council Coun Joe Otten challenged Labour leaders to say how they would fund the extra cost of building new council homes this year
LibDem member of Sheffield City Council Coun Joe Otten challenged Labour leaders to say how they would fund the extra cost of building new council homes this year
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Director of housing services Janet Sharpe said that tenders coming in for building new council housing were “significantly high” and said there was a need to get best value and ensure that houses are being built at the right time. She added: “The cost of building new homes is increasing significantly.”

She urged a “sensible approach” on bringing new builds forward.

Coun Bryan Lodge, co-chair of the council’s key finance sub-committee, asked if it was possible to borrow against the overall value of housing stock. He argued: “We’ve arrived at a figure that says 3,100 new homes that we need to increase the council’s stock, so a lot of time and effort has gone in to achieve that.”

He said: “We seem to be starting the wrong way round. If that is the number of properties we’ve identified that we need, then that’s what we should be working to achieve, rather than we’ll have to scale down.”

Sheffield City Council deputy leader Coun Julie Grocutt said that she was worried about the people who would be left longer in temporary accommodation or on the waiting listSheffield City Council deputy leader Coun Julie Grocutt said that she was worried about the people who would be left longer in temporary accommodation or on the waiting list
Sheffield City Council deputy leader Coun Julie Grocutt said that she was worried about the people who would be left longer in temporary accommodation or on the waiting list

‘Unprecedented demand’

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Deputy council leader Coun Julie Grocutt said: “We know that we have got unprecedented demand, we know that we don’t have the right buildings in the right places for the right people because, notwithstanding cases I get about repairs, I get cases about people not living in the type of property they want to live in and the part of the city they want to be in.

“As Bryan has said, we know we need 3,000 houses. So the questions for me are if we don’t have that many houses in the year, how many people are we going to have left in temporary accommodation, how long have people been in temporary accommodation already who are waiting, how many people are on the waiting list, how long have they been on the waiting list?

“Because at the end of the day people have a right to have a decent home and it’s our responsibility as a council to provide those homes to everyone, to make sure that they have decent homes in a safe place where they can feel secure and have a good quality of life.”

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She added: “Bryan pressing on the points that he’s been pressing is absolutely right because we should leave no stone unturned to find the funding to provide the number of homes that we need for this city.”

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Ms Sharpe said there are 500 families and individuals in temporary accommodation, there are around 2,900 bids a week coming into the housing service, with 70 of their own properties available plus others from housing associations, making them increasingly dependent on the private rented sector.

One council officer is dedicated to sorting out quick turnarounds of empty council homes by prioritising repairs that have left them standing empty.

‘Ambition reduced’

She said they are looking at how to prevent homelessness in the first place. Around 4-5,000 people present themselves as homeless every year, said Ms Sharpe, but the council can help some of them to find a solution.

Committee chair and council leader Coun Terry Fox said: “In Bristol they are investing something like £1.8 billion in their stock increase programme, so I don’t think we should be having our ambition reduced, I think we should be expanding our ambition.”

LibDem Coun Joe Otten said: “My concern is that we’ve been asked to consider these points, and we’ve had a discussion, but when I’ve asked for options – how do we deliver the stock increase programme?

“Well, we’ve not really had the options and so I don’t feel as a committee we’ve done what the housing committee has asked us to do.

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"Either these options exist, in which case we should all consider them, or they don’t exist, in which case what is the basis of the request from housing, what is the basis of the press release that you (Labour) put out the other day, condemning Coun Johnson and Coun Baker for the reduction in the numbers on the basis of maintaining the spending on the stock increase programme?”

LibDem Coun Penny Baker co-chairs the housing policy committee with Coun Johnson, Green Party group leader.

Coun Fox replied: “I think we’re quite clear that we would go down the borrowing route and we believe that there’s headroom to borrow in there by a number of issues that we’ve addressed in the repairs service etc, the money being spent, and that’s why the amendments to full council to this budget will be put forward by the party.”

He said it could then be decided at the full council meeting on February with a vote by all 84 councillors.