Don’t fall for the great ‘affordable housing’ myth

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Whatever Imperial have in mind for ‘affordable housing’ in Wye it isn’t this…

Would a carte blanche to Imperial to do what it wants to Wye be nothing but bad news? Of course not. The level crossing problem would probably be fixed. True, it could be alleviated a lot more cheaply and simply just by having the gates close rather more efficiently than they do at the moment.

But the fact remains. Imperial will promise to bring great benefits alongside the battalions of bulldozers. Let’s take a good look at them before we leap at the prospect, though, because gifts like these may well be a little illusory. Consider, for example, the notion of ‘affordable housing’ which will supposedly account for around thirty five per cent of all the homes the college want to build on the protected land of the AONB.

How could anyone object to ‘affordable housing’? Wouldn’t it be great if Imperial actually made it easier for local people to get on the home owning ladder in the village where they were born? Possibly. But before you get too excited, take a deep breath and prepare yourself for a few surprises. Because this, like so many high-flown Imperial promises, is not the generous offer it seems.

‘Affordable housing’ is one of those phrases that politicians trot out to silence people. It’s like kissing babies. How can anyone possibly stand up and say it’s a bad thing? With great difficulty, or so Imperial and its banner-wavers will hope.

Before you fall for this line, though, it’s worth discovering exactly what is on the table here, and what it might mean for those keen to find a home in Wye at a price they can manage. In truth, they’re likely to be very, very disappointed.

The first thing to understand is that Imperial’s promise to make 35 per cent of its new housing stock ‘affordable’ does not stem from generosity on the part of David Brooks Wilson and his boss Professor Sir Richard Sykes. All new housing developments of any size must contain affordable housing in order to win planning permission these days, and that 35 per cent figure is par for the course — in London it might well have been 50 per cent.

Park Farm

All new estates, like Park Farm here, have to contain affordable housing to get planning permission; this is not some generous gift to locals from Imperial College

So who gets these homes and what exactly are they? Well, not people looking to get a leg up on the private property ladder, usually anyway. ‘Affordable housing’ is old-fashioned council housing under another name — publicly funded housing stock rented out, on the basis of need, to people on the council waiting list, at rents that are always controlled and usually subsidised too. In London about sixty to seventy per cent of tenants for this kind of housing are partially or wholly dependent on housing benefit and income support or pensions. The figure may not be so high in Ashford, but the message is still the same. Affordable housing is for the most needy in society, such as families desperate to get out of difficult estates like Stanhope.

The chances are some, if not most of it, would go to existing council house tenants in difficult areas, to rehouse overcrowded families who need larger accommodation, or Ashford’s burgeoning asylum seeker and economic migrant population. These people have every right to expect somewhere to live. But whether people so poor they probably can’t afford a car would really want to be on a rural housing estate marooned between Wye and Brook, with no shops in walking distance, and doubtless no decent public transport either, is a matter of conjecture. If you live in Wye, have a job and the money to get on the property ladder elsewhere in the area, at lower prices in less popular parts of the district, you will not, of course, even go on this list. A growing proportion of new social housing tenants in London come from vulnerable and socially marginalised groups — such as those those with mental health problems, young people leaving care homes. It would be hard to provide the extra support services these people need in the middle of nowhere as well.

That said, some affordable housing can offer a kind of home ownership. There are a variety of schemes whereby housing associations will share ownership with the buyer. That could let people get onto the property ladder — but is it an open market scheme that anybody will be able to take advantage of. Wye locals will be in competition with everyone else, including people moving down from London looking for somewhere (in London terms) cheap and nice to live.

In reality it would be very difficult to skew any new housing so that it benefited locals more than others. There is, for example, a scheme called ‘affordable rural local needs housing’. To quote Ashford Borough Council, ‘in parishes where there is a clearly identified housing demand, the Council will aim to help to provide affordable rural local needs housing. The quantification for affordable rural local needs housing provision is determined through survey work, conducted in consultation with the Parish Council, and undertaken by the Council’s Rural Housing Enabler. This is usually the Rural Housing Trust, a long established partner of the Council. … The Council is only able to consider granting planning consent for affordable rural local needs housing on sites where the need for that housing is demonstrated by a survey, and supported by the Parish Council’.

Under this sort of arrangement you get points for the amount of time you have lived locally, for family ties, and job links. But if the accommodation is rented it will still be allocated on the basis of ‘need’. And if it’s part ownership you will only be allowed to sell it on to another local, which will depress the price, perhaps substantially. Would you really want to risk that kind of restriction if you could buy a property without any chains around it just a few miles down the road in Ashford — and sell on the open market? Probably not.

The plain truth is that all schemes like these, including those aimed at ‘key workers’ such as teachers and nurses, are struggling to find buyers, because the homes can usually only be sold on to oher key workers. Most of us want to see property as a form of saving as well as a way of putting a roof over our heads, which is why the housing market continues in the daft upward spiral we have seen for years.

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There are locals-only schemes planned for the Lake District though… but only because the area has the special planning status Imperial want to ignore in Wye

There is, though, one part of the country where house sales may in future be restricted to locals. That is in the Lake District, where the existence of the National Park could give planners the opportunity to use more stringent rules than elsewhere, and place stringent restrictions on the sale of properties to wealth distant owners who simply want a cottage for the weekend. National Parks and AONBs share similar status these days, though given that Imperial want to ignore the planning restrictions surrounding our own AONB one should not, naturally, expect them to go down this route.

I suspect that, in the months to come, we will receive a number of tantalising goodies waved in our faces like this. There is already mention of a ‘skateboard’ park (the generosity of panting property developers surely knows no bounds). Some may be worthwhile; given the environmental and social cost of this development one would hope so. But all need the cold, clear light of scrutiny cast upon them, because weasel phrases like ‘affordable housing’ often disguise uncomfortable truths.

And all will, I suspect, be unrelated to the scheme itself. The level crossing does not need a £1 billion super development to get the gates working properly. If Wye genuinely desires a skateboard park, it can surely argue for one and raise some local funds without pawning the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in order to find the cash.

So yes, Imperial would put aside 35 per cent of any housing estates it builds for ‘affordable housing’… because it simply has no choice. The simple truth is, though, that the chances of it being made available to anyone local struggling to get onto the property ladder in Wye or hoping for a council home in the village are very slim indeed. Communities need a range of housing; no-one in existing council or housing association ought to feel stigmatised because they aren’t part of the gold mine culture of private ownership. If anything, they have the right to feel marginalised as homeowners see their equity grow far more quickly than anyone who simply wants — for whatever reason — to rent.

But to believe this form of ‘affordable housing’ offers some kind of solution to these problems in terms of the existing local population of Wye is — until someone comes up with hard facts to prove otherwise — wishful thinking. You may wish to point this out the next time someone cites it as one reason why Imperial should get its way.

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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4 Responses to Don’t fall for the great ‘affordable housing’ myth

  1. Alan Paterson says:

    Truly affordable housing is only possible when the land cost is only a fraction of its normal home counties value. A hugely significant proportion of the cost of any new home is the cost of the underlying plot with planning permission (which is exactly the reason Imperial are trying to do what they are – to optimise the value of their redundant farmland as building land).

    A free market in any particularly attractive satellite village like Wye will always produce premium-priced houses. Locals will be unable to compete with wealthy retired folk and second-homers for even the smallest properties. It is only if land can be obtained at little more than agricultural value that the houses can be created that Ian Cooling would like to see built for villagers unable to live in Wye because of current prices.

    The answer is landowners with a social conscience being willing to release land at a realistic price on appropriate sites currently considered undevelopable. To prevent excessive profits on resale, occupiers have to accept tenancy from the builders, a Housing Association (or at best, an element of shared equity, so that they do at least get a toehold on the property ladder).

    I have little doubt that Imperial will be advised to adopt such a tactic for part of their landholding, but as I commented in the Kentish Express on another such offer some years ago, it would be nothing more than a commercial sprat to catch a golden mackerel and should be recognised for what it is when we see it.

    The trendy phrase ‘affordable housing’ may represent a requirement to build some small homes but in places like Wye, these won’t be affordable by the people who really need them unless the government insists on a significant proportion of such Housing Association developments and landowners become more philanthropic. Did I just see another pig fly past?

    If Imperial cares about the nature of Wye and its residents, let it provide a significant acreage for exactly this type of development, but only as small adjuncts to their numerous brownfield sites – and no more nonsense please about the development of several hundred acres of AONB greenfield land for profit (but don’t hold your breath!)

    As a completely separate matter, the good news is that 53 new people joined Wye Future Group at last Saturday’s Farmers’ Market, and we have now raised over £9,000 to support our efforts in restricting Imperial’s over-ambitious plans. Anyone wishing to support us should contact me on fieldbank@btinternet.com or on 01233-812740.

    It would be nice to see large numbers at our next fund raiser – the 5 mile Sponsored Walk this Sunday starting at 12.30 from the Village Hall, with the route over the Crown, along to Brook and home across the College Estate.

    Alan Paterson

  2. Brassica Napus says:

    Building houses on cheap land doesn’t mean they will be more affordably priced. No matter how cheap the land is, housebuilders will sell at the going rate. Even housing associations are obliged to sell their houses (or shares of them) at market value, i.e. at prices comparable to privately developed housing.

    It is the granting of planning permission for a change from agricultural use to residential use that make the land increase in value so dramatically, and it is almost always a condition of any planning permission to build lots of houses (regardless of the site’s existing land use) that a proportion, e.g. 30%, will be ‘affordable’, which means owned or co-owned by a housing association, either for subsidised rent to people on the council’s housing waiting list or for part-sale.

    So it’s not the low cost of the land prior to development that makes it possible to build affordable housing there, it’s the fact that the developer had to accept this restriction on his development as a condition of the scheme going ahead at all. Without it there would be none, even if the land was worth peanuts.

    The less of the site that the planners require the developer to set aside for ‘affordable’ housing, the more he will be prepared to pay for the land. In the M11 Corridor, another of Prescott’s ‘growth areas’, the target for the proportion of ‘affordable housing’ on some new developments is 40%-50%. That kind of % here would mean lower land values and thus less profit for Imperial. So ICL has no incentive to be generous. Unless it is suggested that Imperial would almost literally give away some land for housing for local people in perpetuity?

    If the difference between agricultural and residential land values were smaller, things might be different. One way to reduce the difference is to transfer land from agricultural to residential use (which appears to be the government’s policy).

    The other way is to increase the value of agricultural land. Ironically, the value of agricultural land in the UK might increase significantly if it were used for growing biofuels. Despite global warming, Gulf wars, Russian proto-dictators, and the many messes in the Middle East, the world has not been shaken from its love of fossil fuels. But as oil gets more scarce it will be increasingly costly (not just in terms of dollars per barrel). We need to find a renewable, cleaner and less politically fragile supply of fuel.

    I’m not an agricultural economist, but imagine if we ran our cars on rape seed oil, or whatever, grown in the UK? With our temperate climate, these really could be fields of gold. And perhaps a lifeline for arable farmers?
    See: http://www.nfu.org.uk/x6745.xml

    Unfortunately, the plans for the biofuel research centre for Wye seem to involve all the actual cultivation happening in the developing world – isn’t this swapping one international exploitation for another? Why ship it in when we can grow it?

    If you think I’m an idealistic fool, remember that nearly half the cars in Brazil run on ethanol derived from sugar cane:
    http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Business/story?id=1959047&page=1

  3. Justin Williams says:

    Road transport in the UK consumes 37.6m tonnes of petroleum products a year. The most productive oil crop that can be grown in this country is rape. The average yield is 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare. One tonne of rapeseed produces 415kg of biodiesel. So every hectare of arable land could provide 1.45 tonnes of transport fuel.

    To run our cars and buses and lorries on biodiesel, in other words, would require 25.9m hectares. There are 5.7m in the UK. Even the EU’s more modest target of 20% by 2020 would consume almost all our cropland.

  4. Brassica Napus says:

    Thanks for the stats – fair enough, we’d have to import most of it! But worth growing some, still? Or hopelessly uneconomic?

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