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West is best, but not for housing affordability.

politics and planning

For me, writing this article feels like reporting on a slow-motion car crash. The conclusion is inevitable but exactly when final impact is made is unclear.

What am I talking about? Housing (un)affordability in the South West.

Almost twenty years ago, I was working on communicating the Draft Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West (RSS). At the time, the RSS was a new kind of plan which would take forward the current regional planning strategy contained in Regional Planning Guidance RPG10. The RSS would deal with long term development (to 2026) of the whole of the South West region, we said.

In 2004, the SW Regional Assembly was given the role of Regional Planning body by Government and as such was responsible for developing the statutory RSS, which was submitted in draft to the then Deputy Prime Minister in December 2005.

The plan was to provide the regional framework for local development plans, as set out in Local Development Documents produced by each of the region’s Local Authorities.

At the time, one of the elements that made most sense to me was that the RSS set a regional framework about ‘where things go’, what the scale of development should be, and links between development in the region and broad issues such a healthcare, education and culture. The RSS was wide reaching in its policy suggestions, and even contained a Regional Transport Strategy.

The Draft RSS suggested that levels of around 25,000 new dwellings a year could be required. These forecasts were based on assumptions of economic growth and decreasing household size, which would need to be closely monitored and reviewed during the plan period.

Despite its long-term vision, the strategy came under criticism from the press and those who felt the Regional Assembly was being imposed upon them, squashing local decision-making and accountability – despite the Regional Assembly members all being senior councillors from each of the 51 local authorities in the South West

All of those authorities at the time signed up to housing numbers in the draft strategy (some more reluctantly than others) and the overall direction of policy.

So why wasn’t it delivered?

Several events then happened which put the death nail into this plan before it was adopted. Firstly, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced his plan
to build 3 million homes by 2020 and topped up the housing numbers on each of the region’s plans by around 20%. Overnight, this undermined all the buy-in that the housing numbers were locally-led and not being imposed from above, unpicking the strategic basis on which RSS had been built. Grant Shapps, who was shadow housing spokesman at the time, called for "greater buy-in by local councils before housing plans went ahead".

Next, we had the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010 and this brought with it two things, the
Decentralisation and Localism Bill and Eric Pickles then Communities and Local Government Secretary, announcing the ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ to close down regional bureaucracy to save £16m a year as part the Coalition Government’s spending review. The rest, as they say, was history.

Back in 2004, one of the consultation leaflets the Regional Assembly widely distributed was called “What will the South West be like in 2026?”

In relation to the housing element, the answer to this question can more or less be found in a report published earlier this year by
Homes for the South West (H4SW) who worked with the University of the West of England (UWE) examining affordability and affordable housing need in the South West.

research confirms that: “every part of the South West has experienced a significant backlog in the delivery of new homes - this backlog currently sits at an estimated 200,000 homes across the region…in order to clear the backlog, and meet future need at the same time, the South West would have to build 70,000 new homes each year for the next five years, with 60% of those homes being affordable”.

Overall, “House prices in the South West have risen nearly fourfold - while median wages have only risen by 83% - in the past 25 years, and in some areas, such as Bristol, the increase in house prices surpassed 500%. Some parts of the South West are now seeing median house prices of 28 times median earnings.”

This, detailed and comprehensive, 120-page report does acknowledge that while councils and housing associations have been working hard to build affordable homes, there are barriers to delivery, many of which were highlighted two decades ago. However, these have been compounded by more recent developments such as a lack of resource in council planning departments, and I hasten to add, a subsequent lack of long-term policy plans fit for purpose to replace the regional plans.

Ahead of the recent local elections, Victor da Cunha, Chief Executive of housing association Curo and Chair of Homes for the South West, urged local authorities to “revisit their planning guidance to increase the proportion of affordable homes built” and called on “the Government to enshrine the 5-year land supply in housing targets – especially considering the suggestion of relaxing these in the recent NPPF consultation”.

Danielle Sinnett, Professor in Sustainable Built Environments at UWE Bristol, produced the report with university colleagues Zaky Fouad, Hannah Hickman, Katie McClymont, Stephen Hall and Cat Loveday, who are all members of UWE Bristol’s Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments.

The report can be found here and the results for each local authority area can be viewed here.