For local housing authorities, like Ipswich Borough Council, trying to ensure people have decent housing is one of their most important functions.
In Ipswich, as in most other British towns, the majority of housing is privately owned, either by owner occupiers or by private landlords.
The council still has a role to play in this area: putting planning policies in place to encourage new houses, inspecting private rented properties and taking action to bring empty homes back into use.
But the housing function that most people associate with councils is the direct provision of “council houses”.
In Ipswich there are around 7,000 council houses. It sounds like a lot but is less than half the amount there was forty years ago as many have been sold off – and for a long time weren’t allowed to be replaced – under the Government’s Right To Buy scheme.
Around 3,000 people are on the register for a council house in Ipswich but fewer than 500 properties become vacant every year, so waits can be long.
To try and allocate houses fairly, a complex system has been devised which awards people a priority band based on their circumstances. People who are homeless, in severely overcrowded accommodation or have a disability will get a higher priority. Those in the highest priority band get first choice of properties, with the length of time they’ve been waiting used as a “tie-breaker”.
Fundamentally though, this is just papering over the cracks of the fact that there is not enough council housing. Even people in high priority bands may have to wait years if the type of housing they need is rare.
That’s why building new council houses is such a priority for us. A report to the Council’s Executive this week gives progress on nearly 200 new homes either nearing completion or being planned.
That’s great news for people on the waiting list but needs to be looked at in context. Over the last decade, council houses have been sold off at twice the rate we have been able to replace them.
We need a Government commitment to a nationwide large-scale council house building programme or the wait for a council house will continue to get longer and longer.