Opinion: A post-CSR view from the South West

Down here in the South West we are bracing ourselves for the impact of the government’s efforts to reduce the budget deficit.  The public sector is by far the biggest employer here (about 40%) and redundancies seem inevitable, compounded by posts falling empty and not being filled thus reducing the number of real vacancies. Will the private sector be able to grow fast enough to compensate? I live in Sherborne, a pretty little market town which is renowned for its variety of small, independent retailers. They sustain the local way of life, provide some limited employment opportunities and attract visitors who are looking for something different. Sadly, there are now a number of empty shops in the picturesque high street and several more with ‘business for sale’ notices in the window. The charity shops and the chains are the beneficiaries. The town does not convey a sense of private enterprise just waiting for an opportunity to burst into vigorous new life.

I write this shortly after the National Housing Federation published Home Truths 2010: South West. It makes depressing reading. In West Dorset the average house price of £242,000 means that you need a gross income of around £62,000 just to get a mortgage. With average incomes standing at just £18,720, buying a home is beyond the means of most people in West Dorset. It’s not surprising that more than 2,000 households are on social housing waiting lists. Meanwhile, just over one in twenty houses here is someone’s second home.

There is no getting away from the fact that we badly need to find some way to make affordable houses available in a largely rural area where wages are low and much employment is seasonal but where there are also very good reasons (and some bad) to protect the landscape from large scale development.

The Labour government shamefully failed to expand the supply of affordable housing but I wish I were more optimistic that the coalition government’s approach to housing is going to deliver anything significantly better. We are unlikely to be troubled by the cap on housing benefit down here in the south west, but increasing worklessness could mean that the overall benefit cap affects more and more households. The decision to cut the capital programme by 60%, remove house building targets, allow social housing providers to charge rents up to 80% of market levels and to offer fixed term tenancies seems to me to be a package that is highly unlikely to stimulate a frenzy of construction. It might, though create a great deal of anxiety amongst people who are already struggling with the higher transport and food costs that are part and parcel of living in a rural area.

I know that housing is a complex issue and I know that very difficult decisions have to be made. But decent housing is absolutely fundamental to the well-being of individuals and to communities. Without a secure home to provide warmth and adequate space, people suffer physical and mental ill-health, children don’t get the full benefit from their education, adults find it hard to organise their lives and relationships break down.

Am I taking too gloomy a view of the government’s current programme? Perhaps, but right now I am so worried about what is likely to happen to housing and employment in the south west of England that I can’t give the positive initiatives the welcome they deserve.

Sue Farrant was the Liberal Democrat candidate in the marginal seat of West Dorset in the 2010 general election, narrowly losing to the incumbent  Conservative MP, Oliver Letwin. Sue has more than twenty years experience as management consultant and trainer in the social housing sector.

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4 Comments

  • There is no getting away from the fact that we badly need to find some way to make affordable houses available in a largely rural area where wages are low and much employment is seasonal but where there are also very good reasons (and some bad) to protect the landscape from large scale development.

    I can’t help but think that building a lot more houses and preventing large scale development are mutually contradictory goals.

    And of course “affordable housing” means cheaper homes, which would probably lead to complaints about falling house prices and negative equity.

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    “I can’t help but think that building a lot more houses and preventing large scale development are mutually contradictory goals.”

    They are, if we adopt the approach favoured by the free-market “libertarians”, which is to relax planning controls and allow the market to do its worst.

    Fortunately, an alternative does exist. And that is to identify land with little or no amenity, cultural or habitat value that currently enjoys blanket protection and free it up for development. There is a lot of land in that category spread across the East of England, but little or none in the West Country. The way forward in the latter region is to identify small tracts of land on the edge of existing village and small town envelopes and permit sensitive affordable residential development.

    We have never even begun to tackle this problem. If you drive across Dorset from east to west you will see prosperity fall away. I remember looking in an employment agency window in Dorchester once and being horrified by the wages on offer. I could not imagine how people could live on that kind of money, and where they would live.

    We’ve been talking about this since at least the mid-1980s, but nothing ever gets done. The need is out there, but the political will is lacking.

  • Fortunately, an alternative does exist. And that is to identify land with little or no amenity, cultural or habitat value that currently enjoys blanket protection and free it up for development.

    That is exactly what the existing planning system is supposed to do. And it never seems to find any land that meets that description.

    Having said that, I have seen a suggestion by some think tank that the decision to grant or withhold planning permission should be made by a referendum of the immediate neighbours. They would be less vulnerable to lobbying by some NIMBYist pressure group or other, and presumably they would care about their immediate neighbourhood.

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