Housing crisis in the South West

The lack of rented accommodation available for longer than six months, an excessive rise in house prices due to second home-owners, the conversion of properties to Airbnb’s and people moving into the district since the pandemic has led to South Hams District Council saying it has no choice but to declare a Housing Crisis.

The district does have a five-year supply of land for housing, an adopted Joint Local Plan with Plymouth and West Devon, and an adopted Housing Strategy that they consulted on last year, but local leaders say that due to recent events, there is just not enough properties for local people and those people wanting to work in the district.

This is a story that is being heard all across the South West, with housing prices in Cornwall up by 17.7% on this time last year. Cornwall Council has said that there is evidence ‘of some landlords moving out of the normal private rented sector either by selling their properties into the buoyant home ownership market or by switching them to short-term holiday lets’.

It adds: “The lack of available, and affordable, private rented homes has created significant difficulties for residents who need to quickly access accommodation and also for those unable to afford home ownership and who do not have sufficient priority to secure affordable housing.

‘This is also causing significant issues for employers and businesses in recruiting and retaining staff in a tight labour market including in the vital health and social care sectors.”

Add to that the number of families in Cornwall being threatened with homelessness as they face losing their privately rented homes with limited opportunities to find alternative housing, the problem is forever climbing.

Cllr Judy Pearce, Leader of South Hams District Council said: “We are all very aware of the problems that have been created this summer, because so many properties have been turned into Airbnb’s. We have every sympathy with people wanting to come and visit the South Hams, but we have to look at the sustainable future of our district and if people can’t afford to live here for work, then the system is going to break down. We can’t have innumerable tourists here if there is nobody here to service the businesses that they are using.

‘We do have the Joint Local Plan. It is working well, but it has been drawn up on government guidelines, and whilst we are building the right number of houses, we are not building the right kind of homes that are needed in the South Hams. It is becoming more and more evident that the housing policy which is promoted nationally is not working in areas like ours.”

Speaking exclusively to The Moorlander, she commented: “I believe Ilfracombe in North Devon is similarly affected and towns along the East Devon coast, while closer to home in Dartmouth and Salcombe, have each around 300 properties currently being advertised on Airbnb which could be considered suitable properties for letting out to local families. We know of some local homeowners who rent out their property during the summer months on Airbnb, for example, while they temporarily relocate to a lodge or caravan they own on a holiday park for the duration. But we have seen an increase in people renting out their properties since COVID-19 restrictions were eased.”

In North Devon, Cllr Peter Leaver said: “Parishes across North Devon, including Bideford and Ilfracombe, have declared a crisis in the rented housing market in their areas. I’m asking that we do the same here [in Barnstaple] in solidarity with them. I’m sure that all of us who have been on Facebook or who watch the television have heard the heart-breaking stories of families being made homeless in North Devon through no fault of their own. This is because of the change in private renting.”

These changes, according to Cllr Leaver, are due to private landlords not renewing tenancies but rather changing private rented accommodation into holiday lets, meaning as tenancies come to an end, families have no options of finding other houses to rent.

“The blame for this is being talked about; faults in the planning system and the council not getting its act together, although our District Council is doing a lot about this,” Cllr Leaver added. “This is not a matter of building ourselves out of a problem, there are other measures which need to be taken into account.”

Cllr Judy Pearce continued: “With Cllr Bastone, I brought a motion to the Council. It has a number of actions in it, which are complemented by and are in addition to our plan, Better Lives for All, and our housing strategy. This is a list of actions and I am suggesting that we do not do a lot of talking, but we get on and take action.”

At a meeting of their full Council, Cllr Pearce and Deputy Leader Cllr Hilary Bastone, laid out ten actions that they asked the Council to take urgently in order to address the crisis; two further actions were added during the meeting.

  1. The District Council will lobby government, through MPs and the Local Government Association, to allow a Council Tax charge on housing plots with planning permission if they have not been built on after a specified period of time. This would encourage developers to get on and build their sites without delay.
  2. They will also lobby Government to review all holiday accommodation. This would ensure that it is properly regulated, complying with local planning policies and taxes. This could include an extension of the 90-day short let legislation, a proper planning class for short lets and proper licencing for them. This would prevent people finding loopholes in the taxation system and prevent too many local homes being converted to holiday accommodation.
  3. The Council should also immediately review all holiday letting in the district to ensure that the owners are paying the correct amount for the removal of waste and recycling.
  4. South Hams District Council will also ask the Joint Local Plan project team to review the amounts of affordable housing in the Joint Local Plan and see if this can be increased, so that the percentage of ‘first homes’ on a development is in addition to the existing requirement for 30% affordable housing.
  5. The District Council already runs a letting agency to encourage landlords to make properties available for local families in need. There should be further promotion of this and regular landlord forums to encourage more properties to become available.
  6. The District Council works closely with registered providers on many housing projects across the district; they will now be working with them to ensure the best use of those properties, such as to encourage tenants to downsize where possible and make larger properties available for larger households.
  7. In addition to this, the District Council is proposing to use some of the affordable housing revenue to increase payments made to those tenants downsizing to make the move more attractable and affordable.
  8. The Council are committed to using Section 106 affordable housing contributions as soon as possible, to help fund developments anywhere in the district where the terms of the Section 106 agreements will allow.
  9. The Council also wants to campaign for changes to the Broad Market Area, to better reflect the costs of rents in the South Hams.
  10. The Council would encourage the development of an exemplar site of low carbon modular housing such as ZEDpods, to show that developments like this can be both stylish and great to live in.
  11. South Hams District Council also agreed to actively seek opportunities to invest in Council owned social housing with highly sustainable specification.
  12. To lobby Government to allow local councils to be able to charge 200% Council Tax onsecond / holiday homes, as they do in Wales.

Cllr Pearce added: “What is not fair to people who live here all the time, is that the current legislation allows people who make their homes available for more than 140 nights per year can claim to be a self-catering business and as such they pay small business rates as opposed to local council tax.

‘This means they are being subsidised for the benefit and the cost of using local amenities by other residents who do pay their dues. In the case of refuse collection, for example, they can engage a commercial waste removal firm costing around £300 per year which is a fraction of what they should pay if they paid residential council tax and their refuse was collected by the council. As it happens, Anthony Magnall MP is currently looking into some of these points with regards to the declaration of income from these rental arrangements.”

Cllr Hilary Bastone, South Hams District Council’s Deputy Leader concluded: “It is so very important for our residents, their families and their future generations that we tackle this problem now and do everything in our power to enable local residents to have a decent home. If people move away because they cannot afford to live here or they cannot find affordable rented properties, then our towns and communities will collapse. I am pleased that our motion was passed by full Council, but now is the time for us to stop talking and take action.”

Author: Laura White

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