Marlborough's housing - Part 1: tweaking the system or being pro-active?
The dire supply of really affordable homes in Marlborough was raised by the Deputy Town Mayor, Councillor Lisa Farrell, at last Monday's full meeting of the Town Council (March 5).
Coincidentally it was the day the Prime Minister launched the latest government attempt to get more - many more - new homes built in Britain.
Councillor Farrell was alarmed at the Aster Group's continued selling-off of houses - and cited two recent sales at prices the people in need of homes - especially young people - cannot possibly afford.
With a government policy that changed their rules, housing associations have become developers and they can sell their houses in Marlborough and use the funds to build elsewhere. Marlborough needs social rented housing as much as it needs 'affordable' housing for sale.
The government are trying to increase the number of homes being developed by threatening developers who delay building, by taking a swing at 'nimby' local authorities, by tweaking planning rules and suggesting, as the Prime Minister said, that empty shops could be used as homes.
That is an idea reminiscent of the coalition government's attempt - at a previous crisis point in housing supply - to get more people to live on canal boats. An idea that was championed by some MPs, but which was widely said to be lethal for those with very young families as providing damp and unsafe homes.
Rented social housing was hardly mentioned in the Prime Minister's speech.
Last time the government tweaked planning rules to kick-start a building boom, they created a loophole - whether on purpose or by mistake is unclear - which enabled McCarthy and Stone to escape the agreed affordable homes levy of more than a third of a million pounds on their Granham Hill retirement homes development.
Not in a very helpful or realistic frame of mind, the Daily Telegraph carried an article after Mrs May's speech headlined: "Building more houses is not that hard". Of course, there are many difficulties to overcome.
Providers of utilities - water, sewage, gas, electricity - have to have the capacity to service new developments. Providers of softer but still essential services - education and health in particular - have to be expanded to cope. And extra traffic has to be managed and sometimes new roads built.
Since Councillor Farrell's intervention, marlborough.news has been doing some 'digging' and speaking to someone with expert knowledge of housing - though not in our area.
It is not obvious from what has so far been revealed of the government's plans, how serious they are at confronting the market system - which they have been relying on, but which, by their own recent statements, they now admit is failing.
We have been told that just tweaking the market won't do enough: "They need to think about letting local councils borrow to build - rather than just threatening to take councils' toys away if they don't allow enough building."
"Another key plank in their policy should be a tax on second homes - with the proceeds ring fenced to support councils' building of really affordable homes. And a main reform should be close regulation of the rental market. They should also make good on their localism strategy and let councils zone housing - specifying where affordable and social homes should be developed."
This notion of 'zoning' would include giving local councils powers to restrict home ownership in certain circumstances to those people whose skills were necessary to sustain a community - key workers. Remember 'localism'?
Our report about the development of Moffat House - the former social housing flats in the London Road - has led to the discovery that the property had been put up for sale by the Guinness Trust at £650,000 for the freehold - as an "Attractive re-development opportunity (subject to planning permission) in central Marlborough."
We have been told that this was an opportunity lost. Had the unitary council been pro-active in finding necessary housing for key workers for the town, Moffat House would have made an economically sound investment.
With the Council's 'market muscle', the purchase should have been completed at, say, £590,000 - with basic modernisation and refurbishment costs at about £450,000 - each of the nine, small flats could have been sold for about £105,000. That is a figure within the reach of many key workers in permanent employment in health, care, police, education - for a first-time-buy. Or the Council could have rented out the flats.
Where could the money have come from to fund such a scheme? There is, despite government and councils pleading poverty and imposing austerity, money about. Days after Mrs May's speech on the housing crisis, it was revealed that an unspent sum of £817million had been returned to the Treasury by the housing and local government department. This money had been allocated for affordable housing and other projects by local authorities to be spent in the current financial year (2017-2018.)
MPs have been astonished by this revelation and promise to investigate the whys and wherefores. Of course this money may just be being saved for use closer to the next General Election.
But there is other money earmarked for such developments...which we shall investigate in our next article on housing for Marlborough.
The government's definition of affordable housing: "Affordable housing includes social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing (homes for sale and rent provided at a cost above social rent, but below market levels), provided to specified eligible households whose needs are not met by the market. It can be a new-build property or a private sector property that has been purchased for use as an affordable home."