A newly formed campaign group, the Hastings Rental Health Group (‘Rental Health’), is seeking to promote cross-party discussions between the Labour-controlled Hastings Borough Council and local Conservative MP Sally-Ann Hart to address the lack of affordable housing in the town.

Spearheaded by three long-time local residents, Sian Lloyd, Sarah Gomes Harris and Sam Kinch, each of whom have themselves experienced problems in finding a secure home within Hastings in recent months, Rental Health contrasts the figure of 1,431 households on the council’s waiting list for public housing with a larger figure of 1,537 dwellings which, according to research conducted by national pressure group Action on Empty Homes, are standing empty, used as ‘second homes’ or rented out as commercial Airbnbs. 

Rental Health also points to the report headed Health in Coastal Communities recently issued by the government’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty. In explaining the statistics which identify Hastings as the most deprived local authority area in the South East, Prof Whitty made direct causal links between poor access to housing and poor mental health, reduced life expectancy and susceptibility to chronic disease.

Campaign meeting

Last Saturday morning the group, armed with banners, placards, and a megaphone, set up in the town centre to make their case, inviting passers-by to sign a joint letter to Cllr Andy Batsford, portfolio holder for housing on the borough council, and Mrs Hart. The letter requests that the two politicians set up a joint meeting (together with others in the community with housing interests) before the end of this month “to discuss an urgent new housing policy for Hastings”.

The policy solutions urged by Rental Health include stricter controls on Airbnbs, “genuinely affordable” housing, rent caps and housing co-ops.

With regard to Airbnbs, Ms Lloyd agreed in conversation that there was a balance to be struck. The original business model which gave opportunities to home-owners to offer informal lodgings to tourists and other visitors without bureaucratic regulation brought some economic benefits on both sides without eating into the availability of rentable homes or damaging the local hospitality industry. But its success, she argues, has spawned commercial exploitation, resulting in a loss of housing for permanent homes, fast-rising rents, and loss of employment in the regulated sector. 

There is also an increasingly obvious contrast, exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, between low incomes earned in the local gig economy and the comparative wealth of incomers from London. Rent caps are needed, Ms Lloyd says, to halt escalation of outgoings beyond the levels that local people can afford. 

Labour party motion

Cllr Batsford himself was in attendance at the town centre rally, and is clearly in sympathy both with the Rental Health campaign and with the direction of solutions they propose. He has recently returned from the national Labour party conference in Brighton where a composite housing motion was passed, into which the local Hastings & Rye constituency party had an input, calling for immediate government action that includes: 

• Scrapping the “tax loophole” on second homes and allowing councils to charge a levy on second homes to be used to provide local social housing; 

• Giving local councils additional planning powers in the form of change of use restrictions to restrict the number of second/holiday homes in areas where they are eroding the sustainability of local communities; 

• Giving them powers to comp-ulsorily purchase development land that is being ‘land-banked’ and not developed by the landowner. 

However, according to Cllr Batsford, what Hastings Borough Council needs first and foremost, like similar authorities, is a reversal of budget cuts. He says that in recent years the council was successful in reducing a figure of 2,000 empty dwellings to 800 by bringing pressure to bear on owners – imposing higher rates of council tax and threatening action in cases of disrepair. But the refusal of the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Govern-ment to renew the council’s licensing scheme for private landlords has forced it to cut officers in the Housing Department. And identifying empty properties and their owners is a time-consuming business that the remaining staff now have little time for.  

Tory attitude

So, what points of agreement is he likely to find with Mrs Hart and, even if there are some, what chance do either of them have to change national government policy?

Mrs Hart is chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Coastal Communities and has been making speeches since the publication of Prof Whitty’s report acknowledging that poor housing is among the drivers of poor physical and mental health amongst her constituents. However, when it comes to solutions, she has been referring to prospective public investment in health, transport, education, connectivity, employment – anything but changes in housing policy – as part of the government’s forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper. She clearly opposed the council’s licensing scheme, and has never given any indication that she would favour national legislation that might cap rent levels, penalise land banking or curb Airbnb practices. 

As Rental Health puts it, “in the UK the right to own private property is sacrosanct”. Are Mrs Hart or her party willing to adapt their thinking away from this tenet of faith?

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