Paul Dennett speaks to Cllr John Blundell about social housing, rough sleeping and Salford’s gentrification

Salford is often described as the first Corbynista city, a blueprint for socialism with a 36-year-old chief architect: Mayor Paul Dennett.

Elected in May 2016, the Warrington-born mayor has set about implementing a doctrine that he calls ‘sensible socialism’, a brand of left-wing town hall politics which came to the fore around the same time that Corbyn was drastically changing the political playing field in Westminster.

Both Corbyn and Dennett are fierce campaigners on social housing. In fact, so strong are the mayor's views on the subject, that he remains living in socially rented accommodation - despite receiving a £60k+ salary.

'Only in Salford would you find socialist ale on tap'

As a Labour member, I've known Paul for a while. We don't always see eye-to-eye on issues, though I often find myself playing devil’s advocate when talking with him, such is his knack of convincing you around to his way of thinking.

Given how rooted Dennett is in the housing debate (Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham made him portfolio holder for housing, planning and homelessness in May 2017), and in his particular brand of local government socialism, I asked if I may interrogate the man who is trying so hard to radically transform the Greater Manchester housing market. 

So last week we met in the King’s Arms, an old Salford boozer, where the mayor bought several pints of ale brewed by the GMB trade union. Only in Salford would you find socialist ale on tap.

Social Housing Image
Dennett is a fierce campaigner for social housing and GM Mayor Andy Burnham's housing lead

Some people might wonder why you choose to live in a council house ­– well a social housing co-operative – when you earn such a good income. A strange choice for the Mayor of Salford, no?

Paul Dennett: "Absolutely not. You only need to look at council housing historically, it was provided to everyone: white collar, blue collar, unemployed, teachers, doctors. Even in the 21st century it should be like this, it was Thatcher that tried to stigmatise council housing."

But has time not moved on? Are you not able to fend for yourself in the housing market?

PD: "We have to ask ourselves why you are asking me that question. The private housing market has run roughshod over any ethical housing policy and there is chronic under-investment in our social housing stock. Even New Labour, the last time we were in power, did not invest enough."

READ: Social housing crisis? There's plenty about...

So would Corbyn change all of this?

PD: "The national Labour Party is committed to building one million new council houses – a complete reverse in government policy. No caps on the capital investment of social housing providers is impeding the expansion of the stock. At the moment, for every social or affordable house built, ten council homes are sold; this is why some might question my accommodation, but our social housing estates should have a mix of people to ensure society isn’t polarised."

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Dennett and Burnham have promised to end rough sleeping by 2020

A lot of people blame a lack of social housing for homelessness. Andy Burnham has promised to end rough sleeping by 2020, and you are charged with doing this. How confident are you of meeting this commitment?

PD: "We are making good progress. We have a much better understanding now of this very complex issue and we are working much more collaboratively as a region than we were before. We also have a much better understanding of the individual needs: drug and alcohol abuse, mental health, physical health…it is very complicated but we have a better understanding of the demand."

How have so many ended up sleeping rough?

PD: "Well this is why there remain some real challenges. Welfare reform is the big one; a five-week window to get benefits under Universal Credit. It is all well and good offering loans over this period but the government will only push people into debt. On top of this is the changing jobs market - we live in an era of the gig-economy."

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'We have a much better understanding now of this very complex issue'

Okay, but can you really guarantee to end rough sleeping by 2020? Can it really be done?

PD: "We want to be in a position where there is enough accommodation so that nobody needs to sleep rough. I say 'accommodation' to include a shared kitchen, proper bathrooms and not just a bed. I am optimistic – we have to be – that this is deliverable."

Ok, how will you do it?

PD: "Well, for instance, we have just been successful in introducing the Social Impact Bond, which encourages registered providers to offer accommodation and it is payment by results. That will introduce 200 new homes and we have also received trailblazer funding which will help us deliver another shelter in Chorlton, like the one in Cheetham Hill."

Chapel Street
Chapel Street: Dennett is worried about the gentrification of Salford

The wider point here is that the housing market is changing rapidly. Do you worry about the gentrification of Salford?

PD: "Yes, I am genuinely concerned about this. We have to remember that rents are still low and we as a council try to work hard with local businessmen to ensure we are doing what we can. I am also concerned about the developers claiming no viability: meaning no section 106 money (a development infrastructure levy) or contribution to the wider community. But we are doing more to listen to business."

I personally don’t see a problem with the number of flats or the type of flats being thrown up in Salford. Do you? 

PD: "[laughs] We are going around in circles here, John. Remember the discussion about chronic under-investment in social and affordable housing? We must be able to house everybody. The market cannot just dictate and we are addressing this at a Greater Manchester level at the Housing and Planning Commission. We need to start leading the debate on these issues rather than reacting to a backlash. Politicians too often avoid debating developments, whereas I want to lead it."

Councillor John Blundell is a graduate of economics at the University of Manchester and was elected to Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council at the age of 20. He has worked as an economist both in London and Manchester. 

He is currently the cabinet member for Regeneration on the council and wants to use his professional skills to contribute to the debate on Greater Manchester's economy. 

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Social housing crisis? There's plenty about...

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Main image: Paul Dennett/Facebook