Housing crisis: plea to council

SHAUN LOWTHORPE County councillors are being urged to give away land to help hundreds of Norfolk's young couples get on the housing ladder.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

County councillors are being urged to give away land to help hundreds of Norfolk's young couples get on the housing ladder.

A new report highlights a tension between County Hall and Norfolk's district councils over the priority being given to the affordable homes issue - when too few cheap houses are being built to meet demand.

The cross-party taskforce, which was brought together to look at ways to supply more affordable homes, talked to county and district council politicians, officials, housing associations and developers to compile the dossier.

With more than 16,500 acres of Norfolk land in the county council's ownership, the taskforce was told that more should be done to encourage the authority to hand over potential building plots to home builders, along with covenants legally insisting new properties are given to local people increasingly unable to afford the county's soaring house prices.

It comes as research from the Halifax indicated that the typical property in 70pc of towns was now beyond the reach of key workers such as nurses, teachers, police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

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Only about half of the 7,500 new affordable homes needed in the region are being built and skills shortages in the building trade may also be hampering efforts, the report found.

Meanwhile, first-time buyers are continuing to struggle to get on the property ladder, despite initiatives to help them, North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb told a seminar for housing association tenants' board members at the weekend.

Even shared equity homes, where tenants buy a slice of the property as well as renting it, were still beyond the reach of many local families - because the combined outgoings of mortgage and rent was too much for them.

A recent survey showed that north Norfolk was fourth in a nationwide table showing the disparity between property prices and wages - sandwiched among some inner city London boroughs.

Mr Lamb told the gathering at Dunston Hall that it was essential to build more affordable homes for local families in the correct, sensitive locations and councils could do more to help by “exploiting the opportunities to provide land for such housing”.

The taskforce's wide-ranging report, which will be considered by members of the county council's scrutiny committee tomorrow , also concluded that homebuilders are put off developing land by highways officials who are seen as inflexible and inconsistent when consulted on issues such as access for cars.

It also said that housing developers feel that the county council “demands rather than negotiates” on funding and officers should receive extra training on negotiating to ensure they can secure the best deal from developers.

Earlier agreements should be secured on schooling and social services issues to help ensure facilities are in place as the homes are built.

District councils, which are responsible for planning and delivery of new developments, want the affordable issue placed at the top of the local agenda and would welcome a change in Whitehall rules on so-called 'section 106 agreements' to allow the county council to secure more cash from developers to pay for low cost schemes.

“The districts therefore feel there is a need to develop a shared view of what the priorities are, with affordable housing put towards the top of the list,” it said. “It was also noted that the provision of adult social care services relies significantly on a supply of relatively cheap labour. The provision of sufficient affordable housing in the right places was therefore crucial to the continuity of these services,” it added.

County Hall currently has a policy of selling off parcels of land at below market rates for housing.

That has seen sell-offs at a former school site in Mattishall and from the county farms estate at South Walsham. Another site at Lingwood has been transferred to a housing association allowing 15 out of 35 homes build to be affordable.

And the idea and precise nature of giving land away is likely to spark a fierce political debate at County Hall.

Irene Macdonald, scrutiny committee chairman, said the taskforce's findings were a crucial step to overcoming the 'them and us' approach over the housing issue. It also highlighted the need for closer working relationships between the county and district councils.

“It just shows the appetite there is for the county council to do something about the housing questions facing everybody in Norfolk,” she said. “There is a real need for partnership working and this is a real example of how we haven't managed to get our act together so far.”