Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Housing is a very emotive subject, not least because of the sensitivity in identifying appropriate sites for development, and enabling young people to buy their own homes.
It’s easy to forget that the average rental payment is the equivalent of a mortgage, usually paid off by retirement; home owners have an asset as well as flexibility and the potential to relocate during a career or in retirement. Saving for a deposit is the problem. Over a lifetime, renting privately is money wasted and lacks long-term security: rents can increase or landlords sell up.
In a bid to resolve the problem, and meet its targets for building more new homes, the Government introduced Help to Buy equity loans on up to 20 per cent of a new-build property’s value (40% in London). However, this is now blamed for forcing up prices to an eye watering 10 times average earnings, putting first time buyers into more debt. Some developers are also facing challenges on questionable practices (unacceptable leasehold/management costs) and poor quality construction.
Meanwhile, the National Audit Office (NAO) accuses the planning system of underperforming, with only 44% of local authorities having up-to-date local plans to meet housing need in their areas. Although this is a legislative requirement, the NAO notes that few have been challenged, predicting that half local authorities could fail the ‘housing delivery test’ in 2020, and face penalties.
With the UK population inexorably rising, and a growing homelessness crisis, cohesive strategies, bringing local authorities and services together, to enable delivery to be speeded up can only be welcomed.
Despite housing being a district and borough responsibility, Suffolk County Council (SCC) consequently commissioned a report from a London-based think tank. Published in January, to criticism from the opposition for offering nothing new in just 14 pages, at a cost of £66,000, it was defended by Conservative Council Leader, Matthew Hicks, saying:
“Suffolk’s local authorities share ambition for continued economic growth and suitable housing. This report helps us to continue constructive conversations with partners.”
Having read it several times, I have some sympathy with the critics, with a caveat: what was the brief from SCC, and was it compiled by someone with any knowledge of housing, costs, and the issues which cause unnecessary delays to actually getting on site? In my own experience as a county councillor, officials lacked such understanding, setting up housing conferences, without clear objectives or inviting any developers to contribute, leaving local authorities talking to each other and no solutions.
The brief should have requested a vision, tailored to local circumstances, and supported by evidence, with clear timelines for implementation, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Whilst stating that “economic growth needs population growth” and acknowledging the age demographic challenges, the report fails to provide details. In fact, by 2018, Suffolk’s population hit an estimated 750,000, with 45 per cent living in rural areas and by 2039 it should reach 823,000 with 1 in 3 over 65 (national average is expected to be 1 in 4).
It correctly identifies the lack of mid-range housing for families and middle-management (especially in Ipswich) making it more difficult to recruit for key industries, as well as the shortage of suitable accommodation for ‘downsizing’ (which means more bungalows) and specialist residential accommodation as people age, to sustain independence instead of keeping people in care.
The report notes, “housing is key to future prosperity of the county”, referring to opportunities in the energy sector, with wind farms and Sizewell C, as well as Adastral Park, the IT hub near Ipswich, and agri-tech and life sciences in the west of the county, but these organisations don’t appear to have contributed their views. The right housing, in the right location, at the right price, will be keys to successful recruitment and future growth. This requires SCC’s collaboration across the county, ‘bringing a wider perspective to demand, infrastructure and economic growth’, with the County demonstrating how it can actually contribute by working with districts and boroughs, aligning a ‘shared vision’ through improved transport, as well as energy, broadband and education, alongside health and care facilities.
Discussions with districts and boroughs identified shortcomings at the County: “it needs to behave strategically as well as think strategically”. When it comes to Planning, the County “causes unnecessary complexity and delay, and needs to be more collaborative”. Ouch.
Archaeology may have been divested by the County in 2015, but, from my own discussions with developers, this is a serious deterrent to speeding up housing delivery, costing thousands with little or no evidence to support a major dig. Recently a developer complained of a two year delay to a project for more than 200 new homes, costing him £500,000, with ‘diddly squat’ to show for it; a broken pot was discovered and reburied ‘to inform future archaeologists’. Reform is urgent, and long overdue.
With so many fine Listed buildings across the county, Planners should agree a more flexible joint policy to be implemented in appropriate circumstances, when owners seek consent for costly improvements and repairs. Sensitive alterations which have no impact on appearance (double glazing) should be permitted.
Negotiations over often unreasonable demands for millions of pounds in ‘contributions’ to a council’s pet projects which bear no direct relation to a new development, as part of Planning “conditions” not only add months to delays but can make schemes unviable. It is also worth remembering that it is the house buyer who ends up paying! Hence the premium compared with purchasing established properties; a more commonsense approach is necessary if schemes are to progress.
Another concern is the impact of second homes/holiday lets in certain rural and coastal locations, forcing up values, making whole areas unaffordable for local young people on the average Suffolk wage of £28,000-35,000 (or less in poorer parts of the county). Yet too many of these affluent owners pay no council tax; in Southwold, alone, where 57 per cent (or more) of housing fits this category, the local community is denied £500,000 a year, which would make a massive difference to deprived areas like Lowestoft and the Police service! With council tax rises averaging 4.7 per cent for full time residents, this is unfair.
Parts of the West Country, facing a similar dilemma, now require some new developments in specific locations to prioritise local buyers, banning second homes; Suffolk should adopt similar measures. With Tourism so important to the local economy, I doubt if the report’s authors were made aware of the problem, but appropriate guidelines could be applied to their suggested “garden town to attract developers, allowing the County to mobilise its land assets and bring a wider perspective to demand, infrastructure and economic growth”.
Accessibility for the 45 per cent of Suffolk’s residents, including the over 65’s, living in rural areas, is another critical concern, yet they are being deprived of their regular bus services, with some villages also losing their shops, pubs and even schools as younger people gravitate to urban areas for employment and affordable housing. We all know how important sustaining communities are to general wellbeing, so using school buses for just one return route daily, instead of leaving them in lay-bys all day could be a solution, perhaps inviting pensioners to make a modest payment for the service.
Demand for social housing hasn’t been addressed in this report. Older people living alone in family homes should have the option of downsizing nearby, including in villages where the solution could be developing modern versions of Alms Houses, run by Community Land Trusts. A separate analysis of the issues across the County should be commissioned.
Any vision for a future housing strategy must include ‘modular designs’. During 2017-18, 15,000 new builds were constructed in factories, a figure likely to double in the current financial year. Legal and General are pioneers from its factory in Leeds, the largest of its kind in the world; Berkeley Homes is due to open its own factory in Kent and Urban Splash builds modular townhouses in its East Midlands factory which are 25 per cent bigger than the average new-build.
Specialists in the sector can construct new homes to a high specification within 36 hours on site for an average of £85,000 (plus land price). Having visited a factory myself a few years ago, I can attest to the quality and am surprised it is taking so long for the idea to be adopted more widely. They bear no resemblance to the post-war pefabs, hundreds of which remain in Ipswich, having outlived their 20-year expected lifespan and costing millions in maintenance. They should be replaced by modern factory constructed homes in a phased scheme.
In recognition of their quality, The Sunday Times recently invited architects to design ‘an exceptional house that can be built off site in volume’ as part of its British Homes Awards. A great idea supported by the Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, who believes the UK could be a world leader in off-site housebuilding, with export potential.
The housing sector is set to face further challenges, in response to climate change, with the Chancellor’s announcement that gas boilers are to be banned in new properties from 2025, and Climate Committee recommendations that steel should be replaced by wood, without explaining how that can be achieved, when forests across the world are already decimated.
In the meantime, this housing report is – hopefully – a start for creating a workable vision across Suffolk, albeit an expensive one. Scrutiny Committee should review progress in a year’s time to see if it was worth £66,000 of taxpayers’ money.