16 August 2010

I have examined affordable housing in Cornwall in previous posts and in those have looked at why we should care about this issue, what is affordability, the size of the need for affordable housing in Cornwall, and intended solutions that focus on empty houses, the right to buy, and second homes.

Now I wish to look at how we can best tackle the provision of affordable houses in Cornwall.

Build more
How we should meet the demand from local people for affordable houses?

The answer is straightforward. Forget assaults upon second homes; they are a separate issue from the provision of affordable homes and restrictions today will probably not provide a single additional affordable house. Put minor forays about empty houses into their place. Focus, relentlessly, on building affordable houses which stay affordable in perpetuity. Put all the diverted energy into this. Ensure that by hook or by crook the Cornwall Council target is met and overshot. Face down unreasonable opposition. Enlist Cornwall MPs in this to support councillors and planning officers. Celebrate each and every affordable house built. Press the government to make more resources available as the recession recedes; press the financial institutions to make loans. Expose reluctance. Build and remember John Ruskin’s adage, When we build, let us think that we build for ever (Chapter 6, The Seven Lamps of Architecture 1849).

Obstacles and necessities
Of course there are obstacles to be overcome and necessities to be met: finding and funding sites, funding the building of affordable houses for rent and funding the purchase of some affordable houses, and local opposition. There is no coherent program that faces up to these and provides practical solutions. The approach has been and remains piecemeal and sporadic.

There is opposition to affordable houses, especially effective in middle class areas, and opponents produce a myriad of reasons for not building the houses here but rather somewhere, anywhere, else. It is unrealistic to expect elected councillors to be unmoved by vigorous opposition from their constituents; and those on the housing waiting list are usually quiet. Local opposition is a serious obstacle to the provision of affordable housing and will be more so as the Tory Libdem government gives a veto to a minority among local people, for example, removing a central government driver which is advantageously remote from local antipathies. Localism has drawbacks and it may be that local authorities struggle to successfully deliver an affordable housing program because of local opposition. In this post in 2008 I said: “I wonder whether, if left to a decision by the neighbourhood, any affordable housing would be built anywhere in England. At present central government, able to act for the whole country and able to limit the power of local self-interest, lays down expectations and some regulations about affordable housing.” The involvement of central government in the provision of affordable housing can ensure that the rights of local people looking for an affordable house are not vitiated by other locals who already have a house and fear the impact of affordable houses. The present Tory Libdem government appears to be withdrawing from the field and creating serious obstacles to building affordable housing.

There are difficulties in the recession in ensuring a responsible flow of finance for the purchase of development sites, which are often difficult to secure, and for the building of affordable houses for rent and purchase and any subsequent purchase or part-purchase of the latter. Finance for purchasers of market-price houses is important too because in some developments the affordable component is subsidised by market-price houses, and, as I explain below, I think mixed developments are very much to be desired. As the economy and confidence grow, construction and purchase funds will become easier. The flow of public finance has been cut and will depend not only on the economy but also upon the importance that government attaches to affordable housing; much of the money for affordable housing comes ultimately from taxpayers.

Labour did not give affordable housing any serious priority and its record is dismal; the Tory Libdem government is now beginning to demonstrate its policy in practice and it appears set on only cheering unconvincingly from the sidelines and the suggestion that the requirement for a minimal proportion of affordable houses in a development will be dropped by the government is alarmingly reactionary. The homes and community agency – scroll to item number 9 – has suffered serious government cuts in its funds for affordable housing in the recession.

Additionally, the physical resources for an enhanced house building program cannot be conjured up with a snap of the fingers. More skilled workers have to be recruited and more materials produced and sourced. This takes time but, again, determination makes all things possible. However, physical resources are a factor to be considered in setting a house building target.

I think too that there are additional very desirable conditions that affordable housing should meet.

Of course we should aim to build well-designed affordable houses with roomy accommodation and well-maintained, uncrowded estates.

Building monotenurial council estates has been a mistake; public housing has become in the last decades strongly associated with deprivation and people either on benefits or earning low wages. We should avoid housing which separates residents from the wider community and seek housing which integrates residents. Community cohesion, the modern term which skates around the fraternity and social solidarity of the French Revolution and socialism, is desirable. This means that it is important to build mixed developments, with mixed tenures, a mixture of privately owned and publicly owned and publicly rented, mixed ages, mixed marital status, mixed familial status. The aim should be integrated developments not isolating ones. Encouraging only affordable housing and not also private housing is an error.

Now a diversion from the chief issue.

Housing in Britain has become a brew of confused facts and fictions and views.

The provision of affordable housing for local people – universally approved in principle – gets mixed up in Cornwall with questions about second homes and the number of open-market houses being built which many locals cannot afford; as well as the shortage of affordable houses for local people to rent or buy.

Any central target of houses to be built in Cornwall will now go, abolished by the Tory Libdem government which seems to believe it can rely on local sentiment for providing affordable houses. Increases in Britain’s house-seeking population are inevitable and, while there are legitimate arguments about what Cornwall’s share should be and thus about the number of market-price and affordable houses that should be built here, I think that Cornwall must respond positively to the actual and projected population increases in Britain and play its full part in housing those increases.

Other posts on affordable housing and Cornwall

Bleak outlook for affordable housing in Cornwall 25 November 2010
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 1
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 2
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 3
Housing the people in Cornwall
Goldilocks and Cornwall