Cornwall’s housing crisis and the election: what do the parties propose?

Housing is one of the three crises that Cornwall faces, the others being powerlessness and invisibility. Housing impinges on the future of Cornwall in two ways. These are often viewed as somehow separate but in fact are intimately connected. First, a system geared to the market has abysmally failed to provide sufficient affordable houses for Cornish communities. Second, while the market fails to provide affordable homes for local people, it’s highly successful in producing thousands of unnecessary and unaffordable (for locals) houses which then suck in migrants mainly from south east England. The housing market plays a critical role in creating a proliferation of new suburban settlements, most of which result in altering the proportions of the population and de-Cornishizing communities.

There are three simple causes for the affordability crisis in Cornwall. It’s hardly rocket science. The first is the misplaced reliance on a market that doesn’t distinguish between the basic need for a home and investing in an asset. In Cornwall local need has to compete with the attractiveness of investing in property that can be used as holiday or second homes. In 2011 28,957 houses in Cornwall (or 11.2% of the total) had no usual resident and were empty for all or part of the year.

empty houses 2011

Second, there’s a lack of investment in social housing. In 2013-14 in Cornwall just 10 (ten) social rented houses were added to the stock. This is in line with the third reason for our affordability crisis, the deliberate transfer of responsibility for housing lower income households from the public sector to private landlords. Privatising housing for the poor is part of a mad ideology that deems living in a council house is being unacceptably ‘dependent’ and makes us ‘risk-averse’, but turns a blind eye to the near £10 billion a year of housing benefit paid to landlords or the £5 billion more a year in tax subsidies for those same landlords.

To pursue this project, the Tory/Lib Dem Government came up with a new definition of ‘affordable rented’ houses. These were houses that cost up to 80% of market rent rather than than the 50% more usual for social housing. The new category was designed to ensure that the percentage of so-called ‘affordable’ houses being built could rise, In fact, it hasn’t. The total number of ‘affordable’ houses built, even including this looser definition, actually fell by 29% in England from 2010 to 2014 and by an even higher rate – 32% – in Cornwall.

So what are the political parties proposing to do to turn this around? The Tories aren’t even trying. Having pillaged Cornwall’s social housing stock with Right to Buy, they’re now kicking us in the teeth by proposing to sell off housing association properties as well. In addition they’re offering tax breaks to first time buyers that will effectively put more money in the pockets of those who can save and none in the pockets of those who can’t. Meanwhile, they have the gall to claim that ‘local people will have more control over planning’. This is after removing that control by imposing the extremely developer-friendly ‘National’ Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) on us.

Moving on from the breathtaking capacity of the Tories to proclaim black was in fact white and vice versa, their colleagues the Lib Dems think the main problem is that we’re not building enough houses. So house building has to be speeded up. They’ve already done this, they inaccurately claim, by ‘increasing the number of affordable rented houses’ (not difficult as that category was only invented in 2012), ‘liberalising the planning system’ (by handing it over to developers) and ‘protecting important green spaces’ (so those around Cornish towns can’t be important enough). While Lib Dem policy is naive, disingenuous and dangerous, to say the least, they do suggest local authorities can be given the power to double council tax on second homes.

Labour doesn’t mention even this minor inconvenience for second home owners. This is hardly a surprise when one of their candidates in Cornwall is a multiple home-owner with a holiday home on the Helford. They also say nothing about the National Planning Policy Framework, while buying into the simplistic myth that more houses, rather than a different mix of housing, will of itself solve the problem. On the other hand, they do propose a ‘use it or lose it’ addition to planning permission. This could reduce developers’ land banking but the details are as usual vague and unspecified.

Ukip says nothing about second homes but it does want to bin the NPPF and free local authorities from the housing numbers imposed by central government. But Ukip still relies on the market – higher rents and homelessness are caused by a housing shortage. And that shortage will be reduced by re-directing financial incentives to developers to build on so-called ‘brownfield’ land.

MK and the Greens have the housing policies that might begin to deal with the fundamental problems of affordability and de-Cornishization in our communities. The Greens are stronger on the former; MK on the latter. Green policies include scrapping Right to Buy and Help to Buy, a massive increase in the budget for social housing, regulation of the private rented sector and redefining affordable housing to reflect local median wages rather than inflated market rents.

However, they say nothing about second homes. MK do. They want to halt and reverse the spread of second homes through additional local taxes on properties with no permanent occupant. They also want a Cornish National Planning Policy Framework and the devolution of powers over planning so that speculative building to meet external demand can be curbed and more social housing built instead.

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