by Alan Baldock
Housing charity Shelter this week launched a campaign to influence the government’s review of its National Planning Policy Framework.
The NPPF was dreamt up by the Coalition government in 2012. It tore up local government planning policy and imposed NPPF guidelines as an answer to the country’s housing crisis.
It has been a spectacular failure at achieving the 250,000 homes needed every year, including those in the affordable and social sectors.
To illustrate that failure at a local level, Shelter reminds us that Canterbury City Council has 2,269 households on the social housing waiting list while only 60 affordable homes were built in the district in 2015/16.
Failure of national and local housing policy in enabling the building of affordable homes in Canterbury has torn hope and independence from a generation.
Families and individuals who work locally are increasingly resigned to never owning a home or having a secure tenancy. This is not acceptable.
They work hard, they want to live here and make a go of it but are victim to Canterbury’s double whammy of having the third lowest workplace earnings in Kent and high cost housing.
It is little wonder they feel let down since this means that while they qualify for social housing, actually getting an affordable home through the social housing waiting list is remote. Instead, they end up struggling to pay the high private rents demanded.
Canterbury City Council’s Local Plan is clear that 30% of all new homes on a development should be affordable as it is obvious they are in desperate need. So why are affordable homes not popping up all over the district?
The answer, between you and me, is developers aren’t keen on building them. Between 2012 and 2017 just 426 affordable homes were built in the Canterbury district.
Developers will regularly cite “viability” as a reason not to build affordable homes – even though these homes are needed and have been committed to as part of planning permission.
Put simply, they will give the council reasons why their development won’t make them as much profit as expected.
They will then ask if it’s OK to build fewer affordable homes in order to maintain profits. Almost invariably, Canterbury City Council caves and the homes don’t get built.
Developers also try not to build any affordable homes until they have almost completed their sites.
For example, in the first phase of the Mountfield Park development in south Canterbury 140 homes were granted planning permission without a single affordable home among them. Under normal rules, we could have expected around 40.
The developer argued that it would have to build significant infrastructure first and needed to get the most out of the initial phase of works. Canterbury City Council agreed.
The consequences are at best a delay of around three years in affordable housing on Mountfield Park from the day that they start. At worst, we could see “viability” challenges as full planning permission is sought for the other phases.
Unreliable and slow delivery of affordable housing in the private sector is, therefore, not an answer to the immediate housing crisis facing Canterbury.
It is also not realistic for Canterbury City Council to attempt to solve the current crisis by buying up vacant right-to-buy homes and opportunistically buying other properties at market rates.
These purchases do not even cover the replacement of the 719 social rent homes lost mainly to right-to-buy since 1994.
The solution, on the other hand, is a period of sustained council house building which provides affordable homes to those on the social housing waiting list.
Only that will meet the need of this housing crisis – and prevent a future one.
Alan Baldock is leader of the Labour group on Canterbury City Council. He lives and works in Canterbury.