Nearly 4,000 people wait for council homes - but fewer than 200 available

The award-winning Goldsmith Street. Photo. Paul Burrall

The award-winning Goldsmith Street council development in Norwich is 100pc social housing homes - Credit: Paul Burrall

There are fewer than 200 unoccupied council properties available in the city but almost 4,000 applicants on the housing register, we can reveal.

A Freedom of Information request to Norwich City Council shows that there are 3,891 Home Options applicants looking for council flats, homes, bungalows or maisonettes.

But demand far outstrips supply. As at August 31 this year, there were only 184 properties unoccupied: the other 14,298 in the council's property portfolio were tenanted.

Not all of the 184 were actually readily available, either: some are in the process of undergoing works before they are ready to let.

People over 18 and who have a local connection to the area are eligible to apply for the council's Home Options scheme. If successful, they are placed in a band according to priority: emergency, gold, silver, bronze or "low" need.

Those considered at greatest priority are unintentionally homeless, under threat of violence or have urgent medical needs.

Mathew Thorpe (right) and his sister Leah have been living in Mathew's one bed flat together for over a year

Mathew Thorpe (right) and his sister Leah have been living in Mathew's one bed flat together for over a year. They've found it especially tough during lockdowns while Mathew works from home - Credit: Mathew Thorpe

One pair of siblings desperate for more room is Mathew Thorpe and his younger sister Leah.

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The 33-year-old is sharing his one-bed flat with the 16-year-old and has been since April 2020.

Every week, Mr Thorpe religiously bids on two properties in an effort to find a new home.

He maintains his application should be backdated to the date Leah moved in, as the council promised, but until the issue is resolved he is stuck at the bottom of the queue

The pair's living room double-functions as Mathew's bedroom, making the place extremely cramped

The pair's living room double-functions as Mathew's bedroom, making the place extremely cramped - Credit: Mathew Thorpe

Leah is now sleeping in the bedroom after moving in with Mathew last April

Leah is now sleeping in the bedroom after moving in with Mathew last April - Credit: Mathew Thorpe

He said: "It's an absolute disgrace.

"Sometimes we finish ninth or tenth in the queue for a property, but sometimes we're 69th or 70th.

"Only the top three in the queue are invited for a viewing, so it's pretty demoralising to see yourself so far down the list.

"I have no privacy whatsoever, because Leah has to walk through the living room, or what is now my "bedroom", to get to the toilet or kitchen. It's getting really hard to go on like this."

Norwich City Council's housing cabinet member, Gail Harris, said there was no single answer to addressing the demand for housing — but that despite challenges posed by government cuts the council was still committed to continuing its "century long history" of council home-building.

Ms Harris explained: "As well as our own ambitious new build and refurbishment programme, we provide funding and land to enable other organisations to deliver affordable housing, and negotiate with developers to provide these kinds of homes for the private market."

UK housing charity Shelter said Right to Buy had put up barriers to house-building by local authorities.

Anyone in a secure tenancy can apply to buy their council home if they meet certain conditions.

Gail Harris, Labour candidate for Catton Grove in Norwich City Council elections 2016. Pic: Submiite

Gail Harris said the city council was still very much committed to building new council homes, despite government cutbacks - Credit: Submitted

But Right to Buy 'receipts' have a lot of restrictions on them. Rules mean councils can't use the receipts to cover 100pc of the cost of building a new social home. They can only use it to cover 40pc of the cost of a new home and have to find the rest of the money elsewhere.

There's also a time limit on how long councils can keep the money without spending it, which has in the past encouraged councils to buy old and expensive dilapidated stock, or buy new stock from private developers, rather than building new homes.

The tenant is also given a discount, so the sale of current council homes doesn't automatically translate into the funds needed to build new properties.

But Lee Wright, a 34-year-old who waited three years for a housing association flat to become available in Horsford, is proof of the benefits affordable, secure and stable accommodation bring.

The social services worker explained: "I got made redundant at 26 and applied to be on the housing register.

"When I could no longer afford to rent privately I began living with different family members. It was a really difficult time for me.

"Three years after I applied, I got a call offering me a new build. I thought it was a joke at first. 

"It was a long time coming, but such an immense relief."

Lee Wright applied to be on the housing register at 26, and received his flat three years later

Lee Wright applied to be on the housing register at 26, and received his flat three years later - Credit: Lee Wright

What has Shelter said?

According to the charity, there is a net loss of 20,000 social homes a year thanks to sales and demolitions.

Polly Neate, the charity's CEO, said: "Millions of people in this country are denied the right to a safe and secure home. 

“Last year only 7,000 new social homes were built in England. When right-to-buy and demolitions are factored in, we saw a net loss of 22,000 social homes - while a million people were stuck on the waiting list. 

“The new housing secretary needs to get a grip on the situation that’s damaging people’s health, by building a new generation of good-quality and genuinely affordable social homes, so that local people benefit from local development. “

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove

Shelter is calling for the secretary of state for Levelling Up to tackle the social housing crisis in the UK - Credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

And what is the government's response?

A spokesman for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “We are building more social housing and taking action to reduce waiting lists, which have fallen by almost 600,000 households since 2010.

“We’ve delivered over 1,300 affordable homes in Norwich since 2010, including 900 for social rent.

“But we must go further, so we’re investing over £12 billion in affordable housing over the next five years - the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade.”

Green councillor Ash Haynes

Ash Haynes said the government needed to give local councils more funding to build affordable homes - Credit: Submitted

But Ash Haynes, Norwich Green councillor and shadow cabinet member for housing, said the government still needed to do more.

She said: "Fair enough, some of the responsibility falls on local councils, who need to get creative in encouraging private landlords to rent out to social tenants through organised schemes.

"But ultimately, their hands are tied when they are being given such minimal amounts of funding from central government to build new homes from scratch. That needs to change."