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What is the solution to housing affordability?

The housing debate continues. At no time has housing been so high on the agenda in the nation’s conscience. The relentless increase in London house prices confounds us all and house price rises are now spreading out into the Home Counties. There is a debate about privately rented homes with many calling for greater regulation of rents and standards. Homelessness is on the rise again with many people sleeping on the streets of our cities and the housing benefit bill stubbornly rises despite restrictions on payments for spare rooms and young people.

 

While the shortage of housing supply is one concern, it is the absence of affordability that is perhaps the deeper concern. Whether it is the inability for first time buyers to get onto the housing ladder or the cost of renting a small home, housing affordability is the subject that draws opinion from all quarters.

 

Certain politicians seem to believe that new garden cities will solve these problems. They are driven by their exhortations as to numbers of homes that they are to deliver. But such a solution will take years to bring about. There is the continuing debate over whether green belt should be sacrificed for new homes, the planning arguments and objections, the acquisition of land. There is the cost of the provision of suitable infrastructure and the whole question of viability and the social integration of thousands of citizens. Housing affordability is a problem today and cannot be solved by the far fetched fantasy of future cities.

 

We need solutions now.

 

The Princess royal has entered the debate with the observation that instead of new cities we should allow the simple increase of the size of existing settlements where established physical and social infrastructure exists. The RICS suggests that if land were released in this way it could be designated for social rented housing by ascribing a specific use class to such land thereby bringing down its cost.

 

If we combine this notion with the approach shown by the Prince of Wales at Poundbury where simple vernacular homes were built to a conventional design from local materials, we would have low cost homes let at low rents and homes for shared ownership. This could reduce reliance on housing benefit.

 

It seems to me that this is an obvious solution. Currently, rural exception sites can be considered for affordable rented housing for local communities. So we are already putting forward such sites. What is needed is more of them. If every settlement in the South East was expanded by just a few more low cost homes, we could be on our way to solving supply shortages and affordability within a short space of time.

 

Small scale development of this kind is the province of small and custom builders. Such a move would stimulate local economies by providing local jobs in local areas. Given that this is what the Queen is encouraging on her Balmoral estate, I wonder whether the Royal family understand the solution better than many of our politicians.

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