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Saturday, August 25, 2007

The housing conundrum

I want to do some more work on this blog on the issue of affordable housing but at present I am struggling with an IT nightmare. My laptop swallowed my pamphlet whole last night and it appears to be only retrievable via the server back-up. I am on tenter-hooks, waiting for the service desk to ring me back and utter some soothing words.

I will therefore confine myself to just a few comments about this morning's Western Mail piece on affordable housing. They reveal new statistics that show that average property prices in rural areas is 6.4 times average annual earnings compared with a ratio of 5.5 in urban areas. The average price of a house in rural areas in Wales is £180,283, 17% higher than in urban areas where it is £154, 250. House prices in the countryside have increased on average by 103% in the last five years. Only 14% of housing in rural areas is classed as social housing.

These statistics underline the very real crisis that is facing us. The fact that rural areas are worse off than urban ones is not much comfort. First time homebuyers are struggling to get on the housing ladder all over Wales and we need new policies to try and tackle that. The response of the new Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition however, suggests that they are floundering a bit at the enormity of the task facing them.

Some of their solutions are sound: restrictions on second homes and the right to buy in areas of high demand for example will have a marginal but important impact; increasing the percentage of affordable housing on development sites is essential but there is a need to both get the mechanisms right to make this provision sustainable and also to bring local Councils on board, many of whom are stuck in a rut with regards to their affordable housing policies; increased funding for social housing is also necessary.

The big question is why, when faced with a crisis of this scale, do the government want to waste valuable resources by giving grants to first time buyers? Not only will these grants prove to be inadequate but they will be swallowed up by market forces and lead to further increases in property prices. It is a shameful waste of public money.

The announcement elsewhere in the paper that £29m is to be provided to build new affordable homes is welcome but why rely so much on shared ownership? This type of housing is in fact not very affordable at all as tenants pay a mortgage, rent and often a service charge as well. It may provide a measure of home ownership but its complex nature and the multiplicity of payments involved often put people off. Equity mortgages combined with section 106 agreements are a much more effective way to enable people to afford to purchase their own home, and the joy is that if managed properly the capital costs can be met by the private sector.

Why are we not introducing a key workers scheme, using the best features of homebuy across the whole of Wales to assist people to purchase houses? If homebuy was funded separately from social housing grant and applied universally at a rate of 50% there would be better accountability in its use, whilst local Councils would not find themselves in the situation whereby they have to choose between building homes to rent or assisting people to buy.

It seems to me that we should be expecting a more radical and evidence-based approach from this new government to affordable housing. I will certainly be pushing them to deliver that.
You make it sound as if your lap top is some kind of alien paper shredding monster. I hope the service desk had suitably soothing words.

It was partly because of gimmicks such as their first time buyer grants and free lap tops (although hopefully not as vicious as yours) that I was against the possibility of a coalition with Plaid.

There are several things in the housing section of the One Wales agreement that I am sure we would all agree with. However, in common with the rest of the document much of it is vague, fine words outlining the problems that exist but little that gives any confidence that solutions will be forthcoming.
I had hoped that you were going to instigate a thorough debate on the issue of affordable housing which would really attempt to develop realistic solutions to what is a very complex problem. However, I get the distinct impression that one visit by you to South Shropshire and that's it.

I repeat my invitation to come and speak to the Powys CC Lib Dem group and engage in a slightly more taxing policy discussion.

The affordable housing issues in rural Wales will not be solved by some superficial reportage in the Western Mail followed by high minded comments from Assembly Members on their blogs, anymore than it will be solved by grants to first-time buyers or other election gimmicks.

We Liberal Democrats have got to do a lot better than this!
David, I refer you to the opening paragraph of my posting. I fully intend to try and initiate a debate on affordable housing and intend to talk to many more people. I look forward to meeting the Powys Liberal Democrat group to discuss the solutions they are pushing through Powys County Council.

I am of course interested in realistic solutions which is why I went to South Shropshire where they have been initiating them. Perhaps you can start the debate by explaining why my comments are high-minded and unrealistic.
Notwithstanding IT issues, perhaps a debate starting from something more substantial than transplanted initiatives from English local authorities might be in order. South Shropshire might be a good role model for Powys but Cardiff and Wrexham present quite different problems.
Actually there is a lot more in this posting than is going on in South Shropshire and certainly a lot more in the Welsh Lib Dem manifesto. Don't go away with the impression that we just want to impose a South Shropshire agenda onto Wales, that is not the case. Having said that there are a number of policies being pursued in South Shropshire which, with a bit of modification could be translated into Cardiff or other urban conurbations. As ever with affordable housing most of the cost is in the land value, so some subsidy on brownfield sites in terms of putting in services and roads etc could make a huge difference in delivering homes that local people can afford.
David, perhaps you shoud also remember that Peter has only taken back on the housing portfolio very recently. It seems somewhat unfair criticism to expect him to have had wide ranging debate with all our Council groups as well as other relevant organisations just yet.

A lot of research went into producing our manifesto commitments on housing as everything else. Whilst South Shropshire Council would not have had an opportunity to have input in to this then obviously our own Councillors and indeed all members would have.

I can see nothing that Peter is proposing in this piece that is radical in that it is substantially different to our agreed party policy. It may be that the policy will need refining, it will undoubtedly be subject to further debate. It is a hugely complex issue and there are no quick fixes.

Perhaps a Conference motion from one or both of the Powys local parties could help the debate?
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