news focus

Published: 25/07/2002, Volume II2, No. 5816 Page 14 15

'do not call us, we'll call you, 'was the message to nurses and other key staff seeking specifics on how the latest housing policies will help them find affordable homes. Ann McGauran clutches the straws

Is the health service more likely to hold onto its staff now that deputy prime minister John Prescott has outlined his priorities for the extra£1.5bn allocated to housing in the three-year spending review? The vagueness of his references to affordable housing have already disappointed some.

It is not that the subject didn't get mentioned. It was tucked away among the fast-tracking of planning processes and the concentration of development in the four areas of Thames Gateway, Ashford in Kent, Milton Keynes and the London-StanstedCambridge corridor. Mr Prescott estimated that at least 200,000 new homes could be created in the growth areas.

In London and the South East, the focus would be on tackling the lack of affordable homes for key workers. But there was silence on how many would benefit, how much extra cash they would get and no sign of a timetable.

Since 1997, the government has doubled funding for affordable housing to£1.2bn a year and this was supporting the creation of 20,000 such new homes every year, he pointed out.

Mr Prescott talked about increasing that funding 'subject to further detailed consideration about how best to use the new money available'. But there were no specific targets. He promised to return before the end of the year with 'a comprehensive longterm programme of action'.

According to figures from his office, 4,149 nurses and other health workers are benefiting from government-subsidised rent or mortgage schemes in London and the South East. This is a drop in the ocean, given the Royal College of Nursing's warning that the high number of departures means that 90,000 extra nurses are needed nationwide by 2004 over and above the government target of 20,000.

Unison's London regional officer Michael Walker says Mr Prescott needs to 'set realistic and achievable targets and go for action, not platitudes'.

Some practical steps can be taken now, he argues. 'Stop the massive rent rises, stop closing down nurses' accommodation and address the pay issue.' The closure in about six months' time of Mile End nurses' home in east London is symptomatic of the problem, says Mr Walker. The home provides accommodation for about 130 nurses at trusts including Barts and the London.

The NHS's first housing coordinator, John Yates, works throughout London and the South East. He has said around 350,000 health staff are on salaries that stop them from buying or renting housing in his patch.

In that case, the NHS plan target of 2,000 extra housing units between 2001 before next July appears totally inadequate.

Since July 2000, 1,451 units have been made available in London, with contracts signed on a further 546 units. Pilot staff hotels have been set up in the City of London, Great Ormond Street and at the John Radcliffe in Oxford, and estimates have been made of the South East shortfall.

The London region of the Department of Health could only say it is hoping to work with Mr Prescott's office and has been 'negotiating continuously for a fair chunk of affordable housing for healthcare workers' l Equitable friend: the starter home initiative scheme Senior occupational therapist Lisa Kane works for the South Downs Health trust, Sussex.Finding that on a salary of£22,000 she could not afford the property she was trying to buy in Brighton, she applied to Moat Housing Group under its starter home initiative scheme to complete the purchase.

'Other colleagues are going for it as well, ' says Ms Kane.'But there are a lot of people who have been either low down on the waiting list or who have not been accepted at all.'

One option within the scheme is an equity loan, with a lump sum of£10,000 given to the key worker.When the property is resold, the worker repays the equivalent percentage of the value back to Moat and this is used to help another key worker to buy.Kate Paxton, senior personnel manager at the trust, is enthusiastic about the Moat initiative, but thinks the£10,000 fixed limit may make things difficult in an area of high house prices.'It would need to be at least£20,000 for a lot of people, ' she says.