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Friday, June 22, 2007

Affordable housing crisis

The Home Builders Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru have identified the need for another 40,000 affordable homes to be built in Wales. They have told the BBC that fewer new homes are being built in Wales than at any time since World War II.

The nub of their criticism is that the planning system is too time-consuming and that not enough land is being made available for development. In particular they are concerned that areas where the demand is greatest are planning a reduction in house building.

In response the Welsh Local Government Association has accused them of taking an over-simplistic approach. They properly point out that some developers resist incorporating affordable housing in their plans whilst the Town and Country Planning Act exists so that there is no indiscriminate building.

The Welsh Assembly Government points to the extra money it has already put into Social Housing and the fact that it is seeking to make Assembly Government owned land available for affordable housing where appropriate.

In many ways both sides of this argument have a point. There clearly is a need to provide more housing in specific areas and local Councils need to accommodate this. However, they also have to make sure that this additional housing contains a good mix of affordable homes to buy and rent. To do this they need to be much more focussed in using the planning and other powers available to them so as to ensure that local people are able to afford to live in these new developments.

The extra money that the Assembly Government is putting into social housing is insufficient in my view. It is also misdirected in many instances. We can for example make more use of Homebuy as part of a specific, stand-alone fund, to create a key workers housing scheme for the whole of Wales, allowing people on low wages to buy existing properties that might otherwise be too expensive for them.

Registered Social Landlords can be given more scope to innovate, both in the provision of housing and in creating developments that regenerate brownfield sites and which introduce new community facilities. We can also do more to bring empty properties back into use and, instead of arguing in the press with house builders and those interested in housing policy, the Government should set up a standing housing advice task group which encompasses all stakeholders and gives them a direct input into government. Such a body already exists in the field of homelessness, why not affordable housing as well?

These are some of initial thoughts on this agenda. I have just been appointed as the Welsh Liberal Democrats Housing Spokesperson once more and I intend to spend the summer meeting with interested bodies so as to catch up on current thinking. Before that happens, we have a debate on Wednesday on this issue. Rhodri Morgan has said that affordable housing is a priority matter for him. Let us see how much his government is prepared to change their approach to make a real difference.
Two comments:
1 Some developers have significantly large land banks lying within development boundaries which they do not apply for permission to develop, while at the same time offering 100% affordable housing on sites outside the development boundaries.
2 When you come to do your round of consulting, please come to Llandrindod and get briefed on the results of a Local Housing Census which I have organised in conjunction with the local town council.
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