Dilemma of cheap housing

SHAUN LOWTHORPE As any young person might tell you getting on the housing ladder is virtually impossible on an average salary. Affordable housing is seen as the solution - but demand is outstripping supply and often schemes run into opposition from neighbours.


As any young person might tell you getting on the housing ladder is virtually impossible on an average salary. Affordable housing is seen as the solution - but demand is outstripping supply and often schemes run into opposition from neighbours. Public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe reports.

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How do you get a roof over your head at a price you can afford? Affordable homes arrive by two routes - via the Housing Corporation, a government quango handing out cash to local housing associations, or as a result of planning gain deals struck between councils and developers, known as Section 106 agreements.

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Some districts also identify 'exception sites' for developments made up entirely of affordable homes. But these can prove unpopular with the neighbours and often get thrown out by planners.

Chancellor Gordon Brown asked economist Kate Barker to unpick the problem in 2004.

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Her review on housing supply recommended dampening prices by flooding the market and easing planning rules to get the homes up quicker.

But is it enough?

In Norfolk, councils have committed themselves to building 2,200 affordable homes by 2009 as part of a wide-ranging area agreement with central government.

But no one is monitoring their progress and it is not clear if there is any carrot for achieving the target, let alone a stick if they do not.

That lack of monitoring is a common problem - central government itself does not appear to know how many affordable homes are being built.

“We can't supply a figure - no one knows,” a spokesman for the department of communities and local government said yesterday. “We know that it's under-recorded.”

Audit Commission figures show that in Norfolk there were 3,212 new homes built in 2004/05 with 7.1pc being affordable. In Suffolk 7.7pc of the 2,449 homes were affordable while in Cambridgeshire there were 3,574 homes built - with 4.9pc classed as affordable.

Within districts, delivery rates varied from 6.7pc in Yarmouth to 41.3pc in North Norfolk.

The East of England Regional Assembly, which also monitors the figures - though with a different definition of affordable - wants 30pc of new homes built by 2021 to be low cost. But at current completion rates that target is a pipedream.

House prices in the region are set to rise by 6pc in 2006 while the National Housing Federation has said the region needs up to 11,500 homes a year to meet demand.

Karen Hill, strategic housing manager at North Norfolk District Council, said delivery rates varied for a range of reasons - including the availability of land, and council policies.

“We have all targeted things in different ways,” she said. “Yarmouth and King's Lynn are looking at regeneration, Norwich is looking at growth. Norwich, Broadland and South Norfolk have attracted much more money through the Housing Corporation because of growth status. We haven't been so lucky.”

Dean Minns, head of development control at Yarmouth Borough Council, admitted it was difficult to attract developers to the borough. But he added that there were still some larger developments coming through which would change the totals in years to come. Other measures used to entice developers included reducing the threshold of cheaper homes.

“Our completion rate hasn't been that high but there are different conditions,” he said. “Land values are lower and there is also the issue of ground contamination in some areas which puts people off coming in.”

For Karen Hill securing affordable homes was a constant game of cat and mouse between planners, developers and local people.

“Developers always try and get out of providing affordable housing because of the cost. We take quite a strong line on that and use an open-book approach. They have got to demonstrate that they can't provide it.

“People may be thinking about how their sons and daughters are going to be able to afford a house in the future. But when it comes to defining sites - where you are going to put them - you inevitably come up against opposition.

“Sometimes it's only a handful of people that might prevent a development going ahead for the benefit of the community.”

Tony Crook, from Sheffield University, who co-wrote a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the issue, said while councils are able to secure the land they need for affordable homes in 80pc of cases, the contributions from developers are relatively small while the negotiation process is too long-winded.

“Local authorities are securing affordable housing sites where they are expected to do so,” said Prof Crook. “There is always a lot more that can be done, but where they have got clear policies and implemented them consistently, and they are transparent, they have delivered what's expected.”

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