Let's examine some of the specific actions that council’s and communities can take if they work together to address local housing need.
First of all, we need to look at housing need itself. Understandably local residents can look twice at proposals that suggest very large developments be built in their local area, developments that seem disproportionate to local housing need. Such developments will often be opposed, with residents believing excessive housing numbers, set in London, are being forced on the community.
It is important to stress that this no longer the case. The Coalition Government has abolished housing targets set in London. Councils are now free to determine themselves the level of housing need in their area. In most cases councils do this by looking at their housing waiting lists, using the number of people registered as looking for affordable housing as a gauge of housing need.
However, in Cornwall some people feel that our housing register records more people as in need of affordable housing that is actually the case. It is certainly true that, according to the latest figures, 56.6% of people on the register are on Band E, meaning that they currently live in accommodation assessed to be suitable for them, with no overcrowding or welfare issues. A proportion of these applicants have savings of over £75,000. This situation has resulted in claims that excessive housing numbers are still imposed on Cornish communities, the only thing changing being that the imposition comes from County Hall rather than Whitehall.
These concerns have to be listened to and have to be addressed. Councils set up their own housing registers and are free to amend them as they see fit. It is therefore possible for Cornwall Council to work with local communities to establish a new housing register, aiming to more accurately define the numbers of people in need of affordable housing. I believe that If local communities are assured that any development will be for local people who genuinely can’t afford open market prices, it is far more likely that this much needed genuinely affordable homes can be delivered.
We need to be similarly bold in finding the ways in which this new housing can be provided. I am pleased that the Government last week revealed a new housing strategy that will extend successful schemes to get empty properties back into use, meaning that over 5000 additional formerly empty properties will become homes once again. It will also now be easier to convert disused offices and other commercial buildings into residential properties, helping people to live once more in town and city centres.
It is by such creative solutions to our housing crisis that the genuinely affordable homes we need in Cornwall can be delivered, without huge developments on valuable farm land acting to damage our precious natural environment. There doesn’t have be a stark choice between keeping green fields and building really affordable housing- if communities and councils work boldly together we can enjoy the benefits of both.