Eight new council homes are a step closer to being built in Brighton despite a row over rents and construction costs.
A terrace of six four-bedroom houses and another building containing two two-bedroom flats are planned for a scrap of land in Lynchet Close, Hollingdean, by Brighton and Hove City Council.
The £2.5 million project is part of the New Homes for Neighbourhoods scheme which involves building houses and flats on small hard-to-develop sites owned by the council.
The Lynchet Close scheme was approved by the council’s Housing and New Homes Committee – but only after a three-way wrangle between the minority Labour administration and the opposition Conservatives and Greens.
The Tories were concerned about the high financial cost of the eight new homes and how affordable the scheme would be for the council and its future tenants.
The Greens have been pushing for the council to ensure rents are as genuinely affordable as possible for tenants who are often among the poorest people in the area.
Labour was concerned that if the council didn’t stick to its rent policy, those who were paying more might sue the council because they were being treated unfairly.
The Lynchet Close scheme was discussed at a meeting at Hove Town Hall over a fortnight ago. The discussion ended in deadlock and the meeting was reconvened this week at Brighton Town Hall.
After another heated debate the Tories and Greens voted together for the new homes to be let for a “living rent”.
Campaigners say that the living rent should be 37.5 per cent of the living wage level to make housing truly affordable by linking rent to income rather than market rent levels.
They say that market rents have risen along with house prices for many years and are out of reach or hard to afford for a growing number of people.
A leading living rent campaigner, Councillor David Gibson, the Greens’ lead member for housing on the council, voted for the new scheme to have a living rent.Councillor Gibson, said that the council was the only housing provider at the moment likely to offer anything for people on the lowest incomes.
He said: “I totally support the principle and idea that one must develop clear policies (to set rent) based on actual income, not market value – a market which in Brighton and London and some parts of the country is just too expensive.”
Former council leader Mary Mears, the Tories’ housing spokesman, was also worried about how affordable the proposed rents were – and how affordable the scheme was for the council.
Councillor Mears said: “In our view, the properties are not affordable. The build costs are not acceptable and we could run out of money anyway because of these costs.
“We are building for people on benefits, not low income. There needs to be a serious mindset change about housing.”
A council official said that the unit costs were higher than for many schemes by private developers for a number of reasons.One reason was that a whole new road was being created and another was that the homes and their grounds would be to a high standard for people with extra care needs such as wheelchair users.
The homes were also designed to be low cost to run and low cost to maintain as the council would have to foot repair bills.
So the specification was of a higher standard than many private schemes where the developer had no obligation after selling to a buyer.
Labour defended the recommended – higher – rent levels. Councillor Clare Moonan said: “There is a trade-off to be made between building the highest number of council houses and keeping the lowest price.”
The issue with setting a living rent, she said, was that it would be different from the rates charged to other council tenants.
She said: “It would be unfair and would be an ongoing issue for us.”
Councillor Anne Meadows, who chairs the committee, said that setting a living rent would mean that the scheme might not pay for itself.Labour proposed two options – one where all the new homes would be set at the level of the local housing allowance which is 80 per cent of market rents.
The second option would have offered the six family homes at 65 per cent of market rent levels.
So the family homes would – at current levels – be rented to tenants for £339.36 or £286.33 a week and the flats for £192.48.
The £2.5 million scheme would have made an estimated surplus of £1.36 million or £884,000 over 40 years, with funding coming from “right to buy” proceeds and borrowing.
The living rent option supported by the Greens and Tories sets rents at 37.5 per cent of the living wage level, currently £219.23 for the houses and £164.42 for the flats. The surplus is projected to be £193,000 over 40 years.
The committee also voted to commission a report on rent-setting by six votes to four – the Greens and Tories combining again to defeat Labour.
Councillor Meadows said that she wanted to put on record how disappointed she was that the Lynchet Close vote meant “there would be an extremely unfair difference” between council rents in the city.
“Tenants do talk to each other,” she said, “and that might open us up to a challenge.”
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