Perfect storm has created a housing crisis

Cllr. John Hart wrings his hands in public about the housing crisis in his press article this week, see below. What is he doing about it?

Describing it as a perfect storm implies a rare combination of unfavourable and unavoidable circumstances. 

Owl believes that much, if not all, of this crisis can be laid at the door of past and present totemic Tory policies. Correspondents can doubtless add to the list.

It starts with Margaret Thatcher’s sell-off of council housing without reinvesting the proceeds in new social housing. Since 2008 it has been exacerbated by austerity, with the South West disproportionately hit, and a general squeeze on local authorities. 

The current acceleration in second home ownership, buy to rent, eviction of tenants in order to exploit self catering holidays through Airbnb etc. has been encouraged by various property tax allowances, ostensibly aimed at encouraging the housing market to grow. Second homers can now usually avoid paying both council tax and business tax. Investment in housing is seen as a one-way bet.

Despite what Whitehall thinks, the CPRE has shown that Devon has been building 30% more homes than required for demographic needs. Who do you think has bought them?

So “build, build, build” is another favoured policy that has failed. Locals can always be outbid by those from the more affluent parts of the country and councils don’t have the cash to build social housing on any scale. The demand is insatiable.

John Hart says: “we need a united, cross-party, cross-council approach so we have a more powerful voice in lobbying the Government for the changes that need to be made.” Though he doesn’t reveal in his article what those changes might be.

In Owl’s opinion the real crisis is that the Government has a long history of taking no notice of the West Country. From a Westminster perspective the region doesn’t matter economically or electorally, electorally it can be taken for granted, its MPs are lobby fodder. In any case we also have a Prime Minister who is unlikely to make “bold” decisions to unwind these damaging policies for fear that they might be unpopular or impinge on personal liberties. He doesn’t “do” rules and regulations. 

Simon Jupp has already been “kicked into the long grass” on this by Johnson.

Perfect storm has created a housing crisis that needs fixing

John Hart 

We certainly aren’t out of the woods on Covid yet but across Devon, we are now facing another crisis. And that’s housing.

 House price rises in some parts of Devon are among the highest in the country.

The lack of affordable rental properties means key workers in care, health and education can’t fill job vacancies because they can’t find anywhere to live.

More and more long-term rental properties are being converted to short-term holiday lets or sold off to take advantage of rising prices.

 Now housing is not a county council responsibility but a district council function but this problem is so serious that it needs concerted action.

The county council’s new strategic plan commits us to “doing whatever we can to make it easier for key workers and people on low incomes to find affordable homes”.

Within the next couple of weeks both the county council and Team Devon – which is a partnership of county, district, town and parish councils – will discuss the issue.

County councillors are being asked to back a new strategic housing Task Force in partnership with the districts.

 We will also consider offering accommodation to key workers to attract them to work for us and lobbying MPs to tighten up tax loopholes on holiday rental homes.

The problem is so serious that we need a united, cross-party, cross-council approach so we have a more powerful voice in lobbying the Government for the changes that need to be made.

 Team Devon, which I chair, has already seen some very worrying statistics.

The Office of National Statistics says house price inflation in Devon is running at 13.4 per cent – more than Cornwall or Somerset – and some parts of the county are even higher. North Devon at 22.4 per cent is in the top 10 districts in the country for house price growth with Torridge on 19.8 per cent and East Devon on 14.8 per cent.

We also had figures showing Air B&B offering 253 rentals in Exmouth compared with just four residential lettings. In Ilfracombe the figures were 326 compared to four.

 Hospitality businesses in coastal areas can’t get staff because they can’t find anywhere to live and that is stifling our strong economic recovery.

We also heard from one successful Devon business that is considering relocating some of its operations to Bristol because of the housing situation here.

The county council is struggling to fill hundreds of vacancies for care staff who can’t find anywhere to live. And that has an impact on our hospitals if they can’t discharge patients who could go home with some support from a carer which would free up beds.

Some schools are finding it difficult to recruit staff because they can’t find accommodation.

 Now some of the actions needed will require Government to act but there’s a lot that councils can do.

For example, the county is considering the potential to convert some offices or other properties into housing for key workers and offering grants towards deposits for house purchases.

Team Devon already has a bid for Government cash to help promote small-scale housing projects providing local homes for local people under Community Land Trusts.

Councils can also learn from best practices in other areas and share ideas on how housing and planning policies could be adapted to allocate some affordable homes solely for essential local workers.

There has always been an issue in Devon with young people not being able to live where they grew up because of low wages and high house prices but this is a perfect storm and we need to take urgent action.