Richard Kitson: We can't all be home moaners
We are failing to provide enough homes for our communities, says Richard Kitson, chairman of the South West Housing Initiative...
If you don’t want to know the result, look away now. The depressing flow of statistics amply demonstrating that we are not building enough homes continues, even though most of us would accept that in a civilised society, people should have a decent place to live. Furthermore, for the region to have a sustainable and successful economy, employers need to be able to rely on having committed employees who can afford to live and work here.
Like all of Europe, the South West has been buffeted in this recession, but the region’s economy has not been as badly hit as it could have been and, at 5.7 per cent, we have the lowest rate of unemployment of any English region. But where we are lamentably failing is in our responsibility to provide the number of homes that our communities need.
However you cut the cake, it’s beyond argument that we should be building around 27,000 new homes a year just to keep up with the natural population increase as we continue to produce children and live longer.
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For years we have undershot the target but just before the recession and public-sector funding cuts began to bite, the region achieved its best performance in recent decades, with 18,000 new homes. Since then we have fallen back again.
We all know that the region attracts people wishing to move here, mostly from the South East. And during the last few years London house prices have benefited from an influx of foreign buyers, giving those wishing to make that move to our part of the country the money to do so. But if that is a problem, then surely the answer is not to limit supply, which only deprives those with less money to spend of a home they can call their own.
It was more than eight years ago that the South West Housing Initiative came together to draw attention to the increasingly pressing need to provide enough homes. As Planning Minister Nick Boles MP accepted last month, the root of our housing crisis is in the failure of successive past Governments to ensure that enough land is provided for development. He went on to say that “in the last decade the Netherlands built 4.4 homes per 1,000 inhabitants and the French 5.6. In England we built just 2.9.”
It seems that collectively we lack the willingness to face the fact that we need more homes. Recent research showed that since the abolition of the regional spatial strategies (RSS), South West councils have led the country in making the biggest planned reductions in housing targets, cutting an average of 5,000 homes a year, or 18 per cent of those needed.
The Government believes that greater localism will lead to more homes being built. But the RSS results suggest that we have a long way to go before councillors decide that more homes is a vote winner.
We all know the South West is a beautiful part of the country and it is popular to portray developers as wanting to concrete over the countryside. But doing that to the 87 per cent of the region that is countryside would require some effort – and no one is opposed to preserving the best of our environment. There should also be no dispute that new homes have to be well designed, of good quality and appropriately located.
What we desperately need now is for people to seize the initiative. There are signs that this is happening in parts of the region but most politicians are still reluctant to put their heads above the parapet.
We must get greater public awareness of the facts and show voters that saying “no homes here” also means no younger generations and a risk to economies. With the new planning focus, people have the chance to push for high standards and tangible benefits for communities as part of the deal.
Research by Shelter shows that if the cost of food had risen in line with house prices over the last 40 years, a four-pint carton of milk would now cost £10.45 and a bunch of six bananas £8.47. We wouldn’t accept that; so why do we oppose keeping homes affordable? Other countries with growing populations have kept pace with demand with the result that house prices and rents have been more stable in real terms.
If we don’t break this damaging circle, market forces will prevail. As the economy recovers and job confidence rises, banks will increase lending but delivery will remain insufficient and once again we’ll be inflating that housing bubble.
At the Davos economic summit, the Prime Minister appealed to multi-national companies to “wake up and smell the coffee”. Well, there are plenty of young people around who would love to be able to wake up in their own home and do just that.
Richard Kitson, OBE, is chairman of the South West Housing Initiative, which champions the need for housing for a successful economy in the South West.