Bristol mayor Marvin Rees has appointed veteran housing professional Paul Smith as his cabinet member for homes and communities.
The mayor presented his first cabinet appointee in an unkempt lot in Henbury, one of many future sites of government-built housing in Bristol.
The presentation got off to a rocky start when Rees’ entourage found themselves without a key to the gate. Undaunted, however, one of the besuited bureaucrats hopped over a fence and proceeded to smash part of it down to gain access.
Once inside, the cheerful new Labour councillor for Central ward explained what he hopes to accomplish in a role he calls his “dream job”.
“I’m excited. We have a lot to do. We’re going to have over 2,000 homes built per year by 2020.”
In his first day as cabinet member, Smith has already taken 80 hectares of council-owned land off the market.
“The council was going to sell that land to housing developers, but we’re now going to look at how we can develop that land ourselves by setting up our own development company,” he said.
“That means we can generate the profits from developing the land, which will allow us to cross-subsidise provisional subsidised housing.”
“We want to cut out the middle man and work directly with building companies so they can build directly on our land,” he continued. “We can also ensure, because we’re the developer, that there is council housing and there is housing association housing and shared ownership as well as housing for sale so that we build mixed communities in these areas.”
Smith also wants to tap into the knowledge of other non-council entities in Bristol, turning an ear to anyone with a potentially valuable opinion about how to improve housing.
“We’re going to change the council to be less bureaucratic and more can-do,” said Smith. “We’re going to open the gates, say, to local builders, to community land trusts and community housing organisations and have them come and talk to us. [We’ll then] give them sites where they can test their ideas.
“Those that work, we’ll scale them up. Those that can’t, we can say we tried.”
The cause of Bristol’s housing is one close to Smith’s heart. Like Rees, Smith grew up in a council house and knows first-hand the benefits and difficulties associated with being a council tenant.
As an adult, Smith went on to work in the housing sector for almost 30 years.
“I bring a lot of experience from a range of organisations, but also there are a lot of things that are cyclical – I’ve seen things come and go over the years. Hopefully, it gives me a sense of perspective,” he said.
For Rees, his choice of Smith was a no-brainer: “Paul has decades of experience in housing, he’s been a councillor before and he’s got a fantastic reputation across the sector.
“For the last nine months or so, we’ve been running this election campaign. Paul was with me as we met with social landlords, investors, private developers and community organisations, so we’ve been on this journey together, talking about the housing crisis, developing that shared understanding. He’s been at the forefront of our thinking. So, obvious choice.”
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