8 March 2010

This follows on from the post Affordable housing and Cornwall, Part 1.

How big is the problem?
Unaffordability is caused by a mismatch between income and house prices and rents on the open market. All the suggested remedial activity focuses on housing not wages.

A consequence of unaffordability is that in April 2009 the number on the Cornwall council’s housing register – the waiting list – of people looking for affordable housing was 19 012 (Numbers of households on local authorities’ housing waiting lists by district from 1997, Table 600. ) The numbers, with some dips, have risen yearly from 8043 in 1997. The estimate of Cornwall households in affordable housing need, derived from housing surveys, is around 2300 a year. The register and surveys are compiled differently and refer to different periods, indefinite and annual.

Recently, the process of the reregistration of people on the Cornwall Council waiting list has reduced the list to about 6 600. That puts it lower than in 1997 – see Table 600 linked in the previous paragraph. People drop off waiting lists every year but a nett fall of two thirds is unprecedented and it appears that the reregistration process of the unitary council may be flawed. Look back at the NPHAU data for another indication of the size of affordable need.

The unitary council should resolve the sudden vast reduction of the waiting list. The aims should be a coherent and credible figure for the number of people seeking an affordable house in Cornwall, a working figure on which the council bases its policy and program for providing the homes; along with an explanation of how the provision target will be met in its entirety.

The scale of affordable housing requirement in Cornwall (by which I mean social-rented houses, houses bought under the various purchase schemes, and intermediate housing) is problematic; there are questions for Cornwall arising from waiting list and survey figures and nationally long-standing questions around the definitions and boundaries of affordable need and affordable housing and the level of required income for housing. However, it is incontrovertible that there are many people here looking for a house to rent or to buy who cannot afford the open market and who therefore require an affordable house or flat.

There is widespread awareness of the shortage of affordable housing in Cornwall, and indeed across England. There is disagreement about the remedy in general and often contention about individual building developments. I shall now look at two common suggestions for dealing with the shortage of affordable homes, empty homes and the right to buy. I shall look at second homes in Part 3 of this series of posts.

Empty houses
There are about 6500 empty houses in Cornwall, including those temporarily empty which are owned by the council or housing associations. However, it is unrealistic to suppose that we can solve the shortage of affordable houses by commandeering private empty houses: some are empty for entirely good reasons; some are too costly to bring up to scratch; and a large-scale program of compulsory purchase would be legally contentious and costly. Nevertheless, there is scope for some legitimate intervention. The unitary council has all the powers it needs to act and should use its powers both carefully and effectively: see this council article: Empty properties. However, empty homes will not solve the problem of a shortage of affordable homes.

Right to buy
The right of tenants to buy council houses, introduced by the Conservatives, empowered many people and gave them an asset. The scheme carried flaws; for example, the discounts on the purchase price were perhaps overly generous, in order to encourage tenants to buy, and the money from the sales was not used to build replacement dwellings, thus the stock was depleted. In Cornwall about
11 000 house have been sold under right to buy since 1979/80: see Table 648 to which should be added sales of about 700 dwellings off housing associations in Kerrier, Penwith, and Restormel.

However, sale numbers are now so low that their current effect on the stock of available housing is extremely minimal. This may be a good time to establish that selling is allowed only as part of a scheme in which the the proceeds of sales are used to build or acquire replacement dwellings. This would stop any further uncontrolled hemorrhage while helping people achieve their aspiration to own their house. There is certainly a case for a legally watertight requirement for all new affordable houses, for purchase or rent, to be affordable in perpetuity.

In Part 3 on its way.

Other posts on affordable housing and Cornwall
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 1
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 3
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 4

Housing the people in Cornwall
Goldilocks and Cornwall