The Affordable Housing Dilemma

PUBLISHED: 13:53 14 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

James and Suzanne Pickrell live, with their two children, in a shared-ownership house in Chard

James and Suzanne Pickrell live, with their two children, in a shared-ownership house in Chard

The right-to-buy schemes of the 1980s, low wages and soaring house prices have caused a housing crisis. How can young people in Somerset get their feet on the property ladder? The housing problem has been particularly acute in villages, where prop...

News that the South-west will receive the country's biggest increase in funding for more affordable homes has pleased campaigners concerned about the region's housing crisis. The government is planning to invest £789 million to create thousands more affordable homes and social homes (council houses and tenants' association properties) in the region over the next few years.

Today, an increasingly popular way to get onto the housing ladder is to buy a share in a new property through the government's Homebuy scheme (the new phrase for low-cost home-ownership initiatives, which include shared ownership) where you can buy a stake in a new home from a housing association.

The English Rural Housing Association [] is a registered social landlord, which was established in 1991 with the aim of providing affordable homes in small villages for local people. Louise Davidson is the South West Regional Development Manager for the Association. Based in North Somerset, she works with parish councils and local authorities to research and develop affordable rural housing.

"There are a lot of people out there who do not believe they will qualify for affordable rented housing. But only when they register can something be done for them"

"In North Somerset you need to be earning upwards of £30,000 a year to access the bottom of the housing market. Young people are tending to move away from their village background into Weston or Bristol because that's where the private rented supply is," says Louise. "That leaves village communities very vulnerable to school closures and loss of services, and the supply of people available to do farming and part-time jobs could dry up.

"Having been brought up in rural Somerset, but not being able to afford to return to a village environment myself, this is an issue close to my heart. My role involves working in partnership with rural communities to promote and develop homes that are designed to meet the needs of the local people."

In 2002 a Rural Housing Project was set up to cover the West Somerset and North Devon districts, with the aim of identifying housing need, encouraging people to register and helping to provide more affordable homes for rent or shared ownership.

These homes are available only to local people so strict rules are applied, says the project's Rural Housing Enabler Colin Savage. "Sometimes local people get concerned that these homes will be occupied by people from outside the area, not used to living in the country. They have nothing to fear. Any new homes will only be built where there is an identified need locally and there are strong planning and housing controls in place to ensure that these homes are allocated to local people. They will normally be people already living in the community, needing better housing than they can afford, or someone with strong employment connections such as a fireman who needs to live close to work."

Colin - who is one of 50 independent Rural Housing Enablers across the country - says it is critical that people with a housing need should register on their local housing list.

"There are a lot of people out there - perhaps grown-up offspring living at home with parents - who do not believe they will qualify for affordable rented housing. But only when they register can something be done for them. Shared ownership is suited only to those on higher rural incomes - generally £20,000. For people on lower incomes than this - and in my patch that is two-thirds of those in housing need - rented housing is the only option. This needs to be through Registered Social Landlords, as these provide security of tenure."

Key issues about affordable housing and rising house prices were the focus of a recent housing strategy day held by South Somerset District Council and Mendip District Council.

"There is a growing demand for affordable housing, whether in towns or in small rural hamlets, and our MPs admit to the issue dominating their constituency workload," says South Somerset District Councillor Ric Pallister. "We have a situation where the average house price is £199,000 and the average income is just over £17,000. Inward migration is a significant problem in South Somerset where people are selling their property in the South-east for, say, £800,000 and buying a place here for £600,000, and local people are being priced out of the market."

The shared-ownership scheme allows people to buy a house in stages by purchasing a share of the property and renting the remainder

Meanwhile, in Taunton, a new scheme to provide more than 100 homes for local people is planned thanks to a three-way partnership. Taunton Deane Borough Council's Housing Enabling Team is working with landowners, the National Trust and developers Summerfield Homes on a project to build up to 120 homes on a site at the top of Cheddon Road near the Wellsprings Centre. The cost of the homes - a mix of one- and two-bedroom properties - is expected to start at £69,000 for full owner occupation. The development would be aimed at single people and couples in Taunton who want to own their own home but cannot afford the full market price.

There are 4,600 people on the council's housing waiting list, with some applicants having to wait up to six years for a home to become available.

The authority, which has also been involved in the development of the affordable housing scheme in The Crescent, Taunton (the old BT building), quickly took advantage of new government planning guidelines set in place last year. The Taunton Deane Executive agreed to reduce the threshold for affordable housing numbers in Wellington and Taunton from 25 to 15. This means that any development with 15 or more homes in the two towns will have to provide affordable housing. Councillors hope that reducing the threshold will greatly enhance the authority's ability to help more families own their own properties.

A home of their own

Sally Parish has lived in the village of Wheddon Cross, within Exmoor National Park, all her life but when she married Tim and the couple started looking for a home of their own they were unable to afford a property on the open market and were forced into rented accommodation. Living in a 'cold and damp' cottage, the couple say they never felt more than two months away from potential homelessness.

"The nature of employment on Exmoor means a lot of my old school friends have moved away to find jobs and housing," says Sally. "Tim is a National Park Ranger so it is hugely important for us to live on Exmoor. And for me, with our first baby on the way, being near to a large family and network of friends is ideal."

Their answer has been to build their own home on a corner of land owned by Sally's father. After six years of planning and building work, their eco-friendly home now has recycled plastic roof tiles, a solar panel for hot water, a timber frame insulated with recycled newspaper, a flowering sedum roof on the garage and a rainwater recycling system.

"Having the chance to create a home that fits your lifestyle rather than fitting your lifestyle to the house is brilliant. It also leads to far more individual buildings and a real sense of ownership," says Sally. "To start with it felt like we were on holiday, but now the house fits like a glove. It also takes away the unease of renting."

Settling in Somerset

Suzanne and James Pickrell have joined the increasing numbers of people who have got on the housing ladder through shared ownership. When James' family moved from Scotland to Somerset the couple wanted to join them and they now live in a three-bedroom terraced house in Chard with their two young children.

"It means a lot to us know that the bricks are ours and we can live in peace not worrying about moving on soon," says Suzanne.

Their home is one of many successful rural schemes completed by Registered Social Landlord South Somerset Homes , who are creating affordable housing in Somerset and beyond. They created 58 shared-ownership properties in 2006 and a further 49 in 2007.

The shared-ownership (Homebuy) scheme allows people to buy a house in stages by purchasing a share of the property and renting the remainder from South Somerset Homes for a low-cost rent. Prices start from £50,000 for a 50% share, with additional monthly rent starting from £125. The applicant could purchase a larger share (as much as 75%), with the option to buy further shares in the future.

With more shared-ownership housing developments coming to Yeovil, Chard, South Cadbury, North Cadbury and South Petherton, South Somerset Homes say they are proud to support and sustain village life. BY SARAH FORD

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