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More Questions Than Answers?

Labour’s Increased Community Involvement Strikes the Right Chord, but Housing in the Derbyshire Dales Continues to Present a Huge Challenge

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Northern Dales Labour Party took its first step towards its own “new politics” with the organisation of a Public Meeting on Housing at Eyam on the 4th November.

The “new” elements comprise firstly a determination to be a, hopefully positive, presence in the community on an on-going basis rather than turning up on doorsteps seeking votes only during an election campaign. Secondly to encourage a genuinely open debate allowing people the option of hearing a range of points of view including those which would not normally be put forward at Labour meetings.

Three speakers were invited: Professor Tony Crook, a respected academic expert on housing, deputy chair of the Orbit Housing Group and a Curbar Parish Councillor; Alison Clamp from the Peak District Rural Housing Association which was set-up in the 80s and has built approximately 260 affordable homes, mostly in the rental sector, including developments at Youlgreave and Elton; and Jim Lomas from private sector firm DLP Consultants who offered experience of representing social and private developers.

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The meeting took place against a background of considerable cross party agreement that housing has become a major issue in the UK creating some issues which are pertinent to the entire country alongside problems which appear to be specific to Derbyshire.

In the broad spectrum there has been a massive decline in house building from 250,000 per annum in the 70s to 114,000 a year in the last decade. There has also been a decline in the number of small building firms, a substantial reduction in public and social housing (arising in part from recent Government cuts in funding for Housing Associations - Alison Clamp stated that their allocation from Central Government had been reduced from £80,000 to £40,000) and a decline in owner occupancy and a resurgence of private rental. The practical human costs of this, both in Derbyshire and elsewhere, have been a return to young people continuing to live with their parents for much longer - there are fewer houses and those that are being built are increasingly financially inaccessible to first time buyers - a decline in jobs in the building industry and an increase in homelessness.

Derbyshire and the Peak Park have experienced all of these problems as well as plenty of our own:

  • The average cost of a house in the Peak District is now £315,000 (£160,000 more than the rest of Derbyshire and more than 10 times average local income).

  • 34% of households in the Dales have an income below £20,000 per annum.

  • As a result of the above the Peak villages have begun to establish a reputation as “the second home capital” of the UK.  This situation exacerbated by the fact that second homes currently benefit from much reduced Council Tax.

  • No new “market housing” is allowed in the Peak Park due to it being seen as a “green lung” for the North. As a result only 27 “local needs” houses have been built since 2006 - these under the “Exceptions “rules which allow homes to be built in smaller communities on sites not normally available for housing. Often this has met with considerable local opposition.

  • Derbyshire Dales District Council has been told to plan for 6,440 new houses for 2013 to 2033 but only 400 are projected for the Peak District.

To add to these difficulties at the Northern Dales meeting on 7th December a speaker from the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust pointed out that houses are still being built on flood plains all over the UK and that burning on the Derbyshire uplands created a possible flooding problem for Derbyshire should it experience rainfall at the levels recently recorded in Cumbria.

So, in summary, whilst there are many problems it would appear that above all the country as a whole is crying out for homes and particular for affordable homes. With Derbyshire and the Peak Park very much in the same position but further hampered by planning concerns.

The Conservative Government believes it has a solution in the form of its Housing and Planning Bill which recently completed its Second Reading and Committee stages. It is impossible to fully summarise here a heavyweight document with 145 clauses and 11 schedules but the key elements are :

  • Ministers are to be given wide-ranging powers to impose new house building and to override both local community concerns and local plans. In total 32 new housing and planning powers will be allocated to Central Government including the power to require developers to provide a given number of “starter” homes (see below) in any development.

  • Local authorities will be under a statutory duty to promote the supply of “starter” homes. “Starter” is defined as being a new dwelling, available to first time buyers only (under 40) at 20% less than market price and to be offered at less than the price cap £250,000 outside London and £450,000 in London).

  • Housing Associations are to be encouraged to build more properties but Right to Buy will apply to tenanted homes after only 5 years and the discounted rate will be funded by the forced sale of Council houses.

As stated a very brief summary focusing on key elements but as Labour Shadow Chancellor John Healey said in a Guardian article

“this bill is the Chancellor’s work, with his political fingerprints all over it”. 

We have the classic Thatcherite obsession with private ownership and an alarming centralisation of power in a situation where local knowledge of market conditions is surely crucial. Above all though the figure of £250,000 is the most concerning. It should be stressed that this is a maximum figure - in theory homes could be built and offered at half this price or less but, certainly for a private developer, what is the incentive to offer at much below the amount at which the greatest profit can be made? Given the figure of 34% of Derbyshire residents earning under £20,000, how on earth can anyone in this bracket aspire to obtaining mortgage borrowing enabling them to purchase at this level? For reasons we have seen Housing Associations will find it impossible to take up the slack and in fact Shelter has predicted the loss of 180,000 affordable homes in the next 5 years.

In summary in Derbyshire (and elsewhere) having your own home seems to be increasingly becoming the province of a wealthy minority - and if you do manage to get one don’t be surprised if climate change and poor environmental management results in it being inundated by flood water.

So if Central Government isn’t going to come to the rescue what did local people have to say at Labour’s Eyam Meeting?

Well, after listening to three excellent presentations the meeting elected to split into small groups to consider options. There was considerable agreement that the Government’s Housing Bill was simply another exercise in ideology and should be opposed. Positive suggestions were to raise Council Tax to 200% and second/holiday homes with at least 50% of the proceeds to go to a fund for affordable homes. Further local authorities, community land trusts and housing associations to be allowed to buy properties coming onto the market and convert them. It was pointed out that in Harrogate the council currently insists that an affordable home be built for every market house.

One interesting suggestion was a complete revaluation of property tax which would also be used to calculate Capital Gains Tax currently at only 18%. It was stressed that this would also address in part the trend that has developed over the last thirty years to see property as an investment rather than as somewhere to create a home. There was also discussion of some different models of ownership and tenure arising from Germany and elsewhere and of ideas such as self-managed co-operatives. The local CLP also took up the subject at their meeting on 23rd November calling for a large increase in council house building, a return to rent controls and promising to support small local house building projects such as that currently been attempted at Brassington.

One issue no-one specifically raised but which will be a barrier both nationally and locally is the enormous extent to which the UK goes in for ownership rather than rental. Ideologically driven though this may originally have been it has become ingrained in British psychology in a way that is not the case in most European nations. It could be argued that circumstances are forcing some shift in this but any attempts at solutions not involving ownership will have to fight a battle for hearts and minds as well as dealing with any practical considerations.

So, indeed, more questions than answers but the one certainty is that Labour’s attempt at changing its community involvement both quantatively and qualitatively was a success and hopefully will set the pattern for the future.

 

Homelessness in Derbyshire

A full discussion of housing in the Peak really ought to include people with no roof over their heads of any sort.

Does anyone have any knowledge or experience in this area as I have found it difficult to obtain any detailed information on the subject?

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