The geography of the affordability crisis

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCT 27, 2013

Cornwall’s councillors appear to have given up the struggle to reduce the housing target in their Local Plan. In the 20 years to 2010, 42,106 houses were built. The plan now is for a minimum of 47,500 in the 20 years from 2010 to 2030. As, just three years into this grand plan, more than half of the target has already been built or has permission, the number actually built over the next 20 years is likely to be a lot higher. Much nearer the Tory/Lib Dem Government’s preferred 68,000 in fact.

As government and developers finalise their plans to ramp up housing, second home ownership and population growth rates in Cornwall, attention has turned to the more parochial (and thus more familiar and comfortable) issue of where to put all these houses. At Penzance Labour councillors for example have loudly demanded their ‘fair share’ of all these lovely new houses. Councillors at Newquay and Bodmin have also been keen to demand more.

They imply that building more will somehow solve local housing problems of affordability. In pursuit of this in Penzance it’s claimed the town has the ‘worst shortage of affordable homes in Cornwall’. Unfortunately, apart from citing anonymous ‘housing professionals’, no comparative evidence is provided to back this up.

So let’s look at the issue of housing stress and social housing a little less stridently and try to establish which parts of Cornwall might have the biggest problems. The Council prefers to use the voluntary Home Choice Register (HCR) as its measure of housing stress. Many, including even the Department for Communities and Local Government, point out how the HCR is hardly a good guide to absolute need. Indeed, there are other possible ways of measuring need (for example overcrowding or numbers of concealed households). But, if we assume that the propensity to register with the HCR does not vary from place to place, then it can be used as a guide to relative need, comparing one part of Cornwall with another.

Those on the HCR claiming a local connection to particular parishes could be compared with the population of those parishes. On this measure incidentally, Penzance has a lower percentage of HCR applicants in relation to its social housing stock than do Bodmin, Redruth, Penryn, Liskeard, Truro or Hayle. But this is a very blunt measure and makes no allowance for differences in the social structure or income distribution. So let’s concentrate on two other comparative measures and see what they tell us.

First, we can compare the numbers on the HCR with the stock of social rented housing in a district, using the Community Network Areas and the larger towns as our basis. Some social housing will become available every year as tenants move or die, and we might assume that this turnover does not vary markedly from one part of Cornwall to another. Therefore, the more HCR applicants there are in relation to the stock of social housing, the higher is the potential housing stress.

On this measure those towns with the largest social housing stock per HCR applicant are as follow

  • Penzance (0.69 HCR applicants for each social rented property)
  • Saltash (0.74)
  • Bude-Stratton (0.76
  • Launceston (0.77)

And the towns with the biggest shortage of social housing in relation to HCR applicants are

  • St Ives and St Austell (1.00)
  • Camborne-Redruth (1.02)
  • Helston (1.11)
  • Newquay (1.18)

On this measure therefore these latter five urban areas have the poorest provision of social housing given their levels of need. In general however, rural areas have even higher levels of housing stress on this measure. The worst in Cornwall are the rural parts of the St Austell, Launceston and Camborne-Redruth CNAs.

If we amalgamate urban and rural areas the relative stress by CNA can be seen in this map, which interestingly suggests that lowest levels of stress are found in peripheral areas in the far west and east.

housing stress 1

For a more grounded picture we might look at the actual lettings of social housing in 2012 (both via turnover and new builds) and compare that with the numbers on the HCR. On this measure those towns with the highest stress last year were

  • Bude and Wadebridge – 23 HCR registrations for each available property in 2012
  • Helston 29
  • St Ives 78

Those towns with the lowest comparative stress in 2012 were

  • Launceston – 7 on the HCR for each available property
  • St Austell – 8
  • Bodmin and Liskeard – 11

(Incidentally, the average for Cornwall was 15.5 HCR applicants for each social rented property; Penzance comes out at 15.6)

Again, the relative picture by CNA is as follows.

housing stress 2

Developers and others often claim that we simply need to build more houses to reduce the problem of affordability. If this were true then we would expect those CNAs which had the greatest housing growth in the 20 years to 2010 to experience the lowest level of housing stress now. But when we compare overall growth in dwellings with the level of housing stress on the above measures at the CNA level we discover that there is a positive correlation between housing growth and stress, significant at the 95% level. (The actual correlations are a Pearson’s product moment of 0.408 and a Spearman’s rho of 0.504).

What this means is there is a moderate relationship between the numbers of new houses built and the levels of housing stress. Let’s put this another way. Those areas which saw the most houses built in 1990-2010 have the greatest level of housing need now. This is precisely the opposite of what developers and some councillors would argue!

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