The Big Interview: Andy Winter

10:18am Monday 12th November 2012

Every week The Argus will be grilling someone who has appeared in the news in the Big Interview feature. This week we put Andy Winter, chief executive of Brighton Housing Trust, in the spotlight.

THE ARGUS (TA): What are the main housing challenges faced by Brighton and Hove?

ANDY WINTER (AW): Simply, there’s a shortage of supply to meet the ever-increasing demand for housing.

The rising cost of the housing that is available is making it increasingly difficult for people to meet their housing costs.

The increasing demand for homes in the City is partly due to the increasing number of single person households, and partly due to more people are moving here.

Brighton has a low wage economy. Those jobs that are available, often in the service and retail sectors, are subject to enormous competition.

It is not uncommon that graduates from our two universities end up in non-graduate jobs in order to remain in the city.

While people joke that this has led to us having the most qualified baristas in the country, the harsh reality is that this trend excludes less qualified, local staff out of the jobs market.

Low wages, coupled with high housing costs, is not a healthy mix if we want to live in a City at ease with itself.

(TA): Do we face any pressures that other areas don’t?

(AW): Brighton and Hove is sea and land-locked. There are relatively few sites on which to build new homes. It has a thriving economy and is an attractive place to live and work. The challenge for the City is its ability to accommodate the businesses that will provide jobs, and the homes for people to live in.

I really hope that we get the balance right between jobs and homes. I would hate to see Brighton become a dormitory town, with most residents commuting to jobs elsewhere. If I wanted to live in a town like that I would move to Worthing!

I would support the building of housing between Falmer and Woodingdean, but that is unlikely to be agreed. So if we can’t go south and cannot encroach on the National Park, the only way, as Yazz sang in the 1980s, is up! We need a debate on the number of high rise developments that the City needs.

Unfortunately, the debate on tall buildings has been skewed by the controversies surrounding the ‘Roaring Forties’ tower in the Marina and the King Alfred proposals.

Where we have a real advantage over other areas is the range and effectiveness of support services. Where elsewhere in the country such services are being decimated, in Brighton and Hove, with all party support, most have been protected, and homelessness has been prevented.

(TA): What part do you and Brighton Housing Trust play in addressing these issues?

(AW): One of the most important things we do is to prevent homelessness. Last year, because of our work, mainly through our Advice Centre in Queen’s Road, we helped 4,116 households from becoming homeless.

Unfortunately, because of changes to the Legal Aid system, from next April, we will be able to help fewer people unless we can attract funding from new sources. The visible consequence will be more people living on the streets.

In addition to preventing homelessness, we do a lot of work addressing those issues that may have led people to homelessness. We help people to prepare for housing – what it takes to be a good tenant, how to work with, not against, landlords, and how to increase the housing opportunities available to people.

We provide relatively few homes but the work we do in preventing homelessness and finding practical solutions for people in housing need means that BHT’s contribution to resolving issues relating to housing demand is far greater than our modest size.

(TA): What would you most want to see happen to tackle these challenges? Can local or national Government help?

(AW): In Brighton and Hove, local government could help by agreeing to build 750 homes at Toad’s Hole Valley.

Perhaps more homes should be considered on this site, a thousand or fifteen hundred, but I doubt there would be support for that.

The government should invest in truly affordable social housing.

The campaign group, Homes for Britain, says that every £1 spent on housing puts £3 into the economy. And for every £1 spent on construction, government gets 56p back in reduced welfare payments.

Over the lifetime of this government, £35 billion will be spent of housing benefit, yet just £4.5 billion is being spent on building. It is economic madness.

The right to buy doesn’t help. Over the last 25 years housing has moved from being affordable and available to meet local demand, to being available only at unaffordable rents.

I heard the other day about |a former council house, once with a rent of £120 per week, now being let out privately for £750 per week.

(TA): Are more people coming to you in crisis now than in the past and is that down to the recession or other factors? Are economic circumstances driving people onto the streets?

(AW): Over the last two years we have seen a sharp increase in the number of people sleeping on the streets in Brighton. That appears to have steadied over the last year partly due to excellent work being undertaken by Brighton and Hove City Council, CRI, Sussex Central YMCA, BHT and others.

I am amazed at the resourcefulness and sacrifices people make in order to keep themselves and their families in one piece. We regularly come across single people, holding down jobs, but living in cars because they can’t afford housing. Parents, usually women, are going without food, to ensure that their children have what they need or to heat their homes.

The latest increases in fuel charges might well push some households over the edge, and there is plenty more bad news yet to come.

So do you foresee the situation getting worse in the immediate future? What is your worst fear? What is your best hope?

The introduction of Universal Credit from next year, changes to the Social Fund and further restrictions on housing benefit, will likely result in more people getting into difficulty.

The plan with Universal Credit is to merge into one payment most of the benefits received by a household. Universal Credit will be paid monthly, leading to new challenges for households to stretch the cash throughout a longer period. It will also incorporate housing benefit payments. This could lead to an increase in rent arrears resulting in losses for landlords and an increase in evictions.

The Department of Works and Pensions expects 80% of claims to be made online. At BHT we have carried out our own research and have found that 71% of our clients appear to have the means and support to make claims online. But when you take away the facilities and support BHT provides, that number falls to just 19%, similar to the assessment the DWP itself has made. My biggest fear is that more people will fall foul of the new welfare regime and will lose their benefit entitlement, sometimes for prolonged periods. This will result in three H’s: hardship, hypothermia and hunger.

The challenge for charities like BHT is how we can find a twenty-first century solution to poverty. Food banks are already doing a roaring trade. I fear we will soon see the opening of food kitchens.

A depressing note on which to finish.

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