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"Heartbreaking" housing crisis in Plymouth

Saturday, 18 November 2023 09:26

By Alison Stephenson, local democracy reporter

Cllr Chris Penberthy (Image courtesy: Chris Penberthy)

4,000 new homes needed

A leading councillor has described the housing crisis in Plymouth as “heartbreaking” with 4,000 new homes needed.

The city council says a mass house building programme would cost in the region of £100 million.

The bill for placing people in temporary accommodation in the city has risen from £800,000 to £6 million in the last five years, and in the last 18 months the number of people on the housing waiting list has increased by 50 per cent from 8,000 to 12,000.

Cabinet member for housing Cllr Chris Penberthy (Lab, St Peter and the Waterfront) said working families now find themselves in a situation they had never been in before.

“When it comes to homelessness, rough sleepers are the very tip of the iceberg. Increasingly today, we are seeing people in work, families, because of no fault of their own, becoming homeless. Either their landlord puts their rents up to levels they can’t afford, they are served ‘no-fault’ eviction notices or are experiencing relationship breakdowns.

“From the rough sleepers right through to the families that are being denied choice because of the lack of private rented accommodation, every time you hear their story, it is just heartbreaking.

“I can’t magic homes, I can’t solve people’s problems, I can’t pay people’s bills. The stories out there are not ones of people wasting money or of people who have brought it on themselves, they are heart-wrenching stories of ordinary people finding it very difficult to lead their lives.”

The council’s performance, finance and customer focus overview and scrutiny committee was told that households in need of social housing outstripped supply by 2,575 last year.

And for every available private rented home available, there were up to 100 applications. Many landlords had left the market or had converted their homes to student accommodation or airbnbs.

Rising inflation and a cost of living crisis had put a tight squeeze on household incomes and the ability of an increasing number of people to meet rent and mortgage payments.

Most people on universal credit in Plymouth are in work but they can’t pay their rent because the local housing allowance had not been increased for three years, said Cllr Penberthy.

“To sort out the temporary accommodation problem and long term housing issues, we need a mass house building programme and that would cost in the region of £100 million.

“If we had a 40 million capital programme we know we could make some headway as we could put money into affordable housing. Some of the stalled sites we have in the city would be able to come forward.”

He said that a long-term housing settlement to tackle homelessness and raising the local housing allowance would be two ways in which the government could help right now.

He told councillors that ministers were “reactive” and not “proactive” with funding, so councils couldn’t plan ahead.

Cllr Bill Stevens (Lab, Devonport) said the situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the government was on its seventh housing minister since 2010 causing “uncertainty.”

Cllr Ian Darcy (Con, Plympton St Mary) said consistency around grant funding would be very much welcomed.

Councillors heard that the authority’s housing team are experiencing the most challenging time ever, with staff feeling “so helpless” to do anything.

A homelessness recovery board has been set up by the city council and measures include working with providers to create specialist emergency accommodation to meet different needs for single people, couples, young people and families.

Other projects include providing loans to local charities and voluntary organisations to secure additional beds for some of the most vulnerable people approaching the service.

Longer term solutions are also being explored with more than 40 housing developments currently under construction or in the pipeline.

“We’re having to be imaginative; we’re having to come up with fresh ideas,” said Cllr Penberthy. “We are making progress but there will be more radical work to do.”

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