Profits from county council’s property firm could be spent on social housing

County Hall, Northallerton.

North Yorkshire County Council has agreed to investigate a Liberal Democrat proposal to donate some of the profits of its own property development firm to help build council houses.

A plan which would see 20 per cent of profits from the council’s Brierley Homes ploughed into boosting the relatively low amount of social housing building in the county has been referred to the authority’s corporate and partners overview and scrutiny committee.

The call from Liberal Democrat councillors Geoff Webber and Bryn Griffiths follows a study by the Royal Town Planning Institute revealing while at least 9,000 homes were directly created by local authorities in England in the 2017/2018 financial year, North Yorkshire had among the lowest rates of new social housing.

It also comes after Conservative peer and chairman of the Local Government Association Lord Porter emphasised that “council housing is one of the biggest and most important services that councils  deliver”, saying that their provision affected the cost of every other service that councils deliver.

He said: “If a house isn’t safe, secure and decent, education would be more expensive, crime and disorder would be more expensive and social care would be more expensive, so it goes to the heart of everything councils do.”

Cllr Webber said North Yorkshire was languishing near the bottom of the national league table for social housing building, with just ten built in his district of Harrogate last year.

He said: “Because of the lack of social and affordable homes being built more and more families and individuals find themselves being pushed into an often more expensive and less secure rented sector.”

Cllr Webber said while housing was a responsibility of district councils, a lack of council houses impacted on a number of county council responsibilities, such as education, public health and social services.

He said: “I would advise those members who take the ‘not our problem’ line to consult with the various council officer directors for their professional opinion. Furthermore, I think we would all agree the days of two-tier authorities are limited and sooner or later there would be one authority for all public service provision.”

Conservative members said while they were supportive of action to increase council housing stock in the county, as profits from Brierley Homes were being used to prop up essential services, the proposal would effectively mean funding social housing from its core budgets.

While the likely annual profits of Brierley Homes, which was launched in 2016, remains unclear, the council’s trading arm The Brierley Group already generates sales of around £95m, and contributes £2.2m towards the costs of the council and adds £3.6m profit on top.

However, despite having secured more than £157m in savings since the start of austerity, the council must find a further £40.3m in the next three years, which represents an overall reduction of nearly 40 per cent in its spending power since 2011.

County councillor Gareth Dadd, the council’s deputy leader and executive member for finance, said while he admired the tenacity of the Liberal Democrat members in pursuing the move, it was “dog whistle politics of the worst kind”.

He said the scrutiny committee would be urged to bear in mind the council’s priorities in protecting vulnerable people, which Brierley Homes had been set up to support.