New figures show Cornwall’s social housing builds are at the lowest level for five years

By Richard Whitehouse   |   Local Democracy Reporter   |
Friday 14th January 2022 1:00 pm
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One Cornwall Councillor feels that there has been a lack of confidence in housebuilders wanting to build in the Duchy. Image: LDRS ()

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NEW figures show that the number of homes for social rent being built in Cornwall has fallen to its lowest level for five years.

Cornwall Council this week proudly announced that it had delivered the second highest number of affordable homes in the country in 2020/21 with 814 completed.

However, when these figures are broken down just 10 of those were homes which would be available for social rent.

In comparison 469 were classed as affordable rent – where they are made available at 80% of the current market rent rate.

Another 234 were shared ownership, homes where people can apply for a mortgage for part of the property and then pay a monthly rent for the remainder and have the option to buy the property outright later.

There were also 47 homes provided for intermediate rent and 54 were affordable homes for ownership, sold at 80% of the market value.

But while Cornwall was the second best local authority for the delivery of affordable homes in 2020/21 the total has dropped to its lowest level for five years. Although this could have been an impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Olly Monk, Cornwall Council cabinet member for housing, was honest in his assessment of the latest figures. He said: “Even though the figures show we are one of the best performing authorities in the country I am disappointed in them – 814 is barely touching what we are trying to achieve.

“I am not going to be happy until that is a couple of thousand at least. It illustrates how far behind we are in where we need to be and the journey we need to go on to get where we need to get to.

“Overall there needs to be much more social rent – what I call council housing – that is something we are looking very hard at and are looking to ramp up. Social housing is the greatest need in Cornwall right now.”

One of the key issues is around the term “affordable housing” which is used as a catch-all for a number of very different forms of housing.

The Affordable Housing Commission published a report in 2020 which called for a new definition of affordable housing which was based on income and personal circumstances instead of using a percentage of market rates.

It said that many products referred to as affordable housing “are clearly unaffordable to those on mid to lower incomes”.

Cllr Monk agrees that the term affordable housing is problematic: “Council housing is included as well as some open market housing that are discounted to allow keyworkers to get a step on the housing ladder.

“For some people affordable means a house they can afford to buy with a mortgage, for others it is a house they can afford to rent. I wonder if it would be better to detangle the term affordable so that we are clear about what is being provided.

“You will see people commenting on news websites whenever there are stories about this saying ‘affordable to who? What does it mean?’ I understand that, and it would be better to call things council houses or whatever to make it more clear.”

For Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow, there needs to be more done to increase the amount of truly affordable housing provided in Cornwall.

“What Cornwall needs is more social rent properties because the affordable rent model of 80% of market rent is not affordable to lots of families across Cornwall.

“There needs to be more Government investment and changes in planning policy to generate proper affordable, local needs housing in Cornwall.

“This has been a great frustration of mine – how the shift has been made away from social rent to affordable rent. I know people who are not even applying for affordable rent properties now because they know they won’t be able to afford them.”

Jayne Kirkham, Labour group leader at County Hall, said that she appreciated that Cllr Monk was working hard to try and secure more social housing in Cornwall but said that the latest figures showed that much more needed to be done.

“It is not brilliant, really – we need to do better than that. Affordable housing should be linked to local wages and income. It has been talked about for a long, long time and the last administration had an idea for a living rent but that died a death.”

Cllr Kirkham said that she was concerned that for all the plans by the council to tackle the need for affordable housing it would need more investment and funding.

“It is hard to see where the funding will come from. They are obviously working hard but whether they get the funding that is needed to do some of the things they have put forward…it will need central Government funding.

“I hope it does work as we desperately need to do it.”

However, Cllr Monk said that it was not a question of money to get more affordable housing: “It is not resources, it is capacity. There is not a shortage of money in terms of housebuilding, it is the capacity to deliver.

“What I am trying to do is reset the relationship with housebuilders in Cornwall and those who want to build homes for Cornish people. We want to say that we are open for business and what to let them build the houses that local people need. That is not £1-million houses, but those that we need day to day.

“There has been a lack of confidence in housebuilders wanting to build in Cornwall as they are not sure of the reception they will get. We want to work with them to try and deliver as many affordable homes for local people as possible.”

However, Cllr Monk was clear that there was no quick fix to the current problems and that it will take time for the number of affordable homes to increase.

“It will not happen overnight. We will see more social housing projects come on stream, more and more modular homes and more positive news about housebuilding. We will start to see a groundswell in change of direction but it won’t happen overnight.”

Cllr Monk said that the main focus in the short term was providing temporary and emergency accommodation for people at risk of homelessness. However, he also pointed towards a decision to provide an extra £15-million of capital funding and the council’s work in purchasing properties for local people to rent.

And he said that with the council’s development company Treveth about to start work on new housing projects and plans for the Langarth Garden Village moving forward there were opportunities on the horizon for new homes.

“It is going in the right direction but it is still very challenging,” he said.

Cllr Andrew Mitchell was the former cabinet member for housing in the last administration and said that he was well aware that more needs to be done in Cornwall.

“All hard-working families in Cornwall know that affordable in Cornwall is not affordable. If you are spending more than 30% of your income on rent you are in dire straits, really,” he said. “That is the biggest issue here – if you then combine that with gas and electricity bills possibly double shortly, council tax is going up…it is only getting harder.”

Cllr Mitchell said that he felt it was important for all councillors from all parties to work together to try and improve the affordable housing situation in Cornwall.

“Let’s work together for the people of Cornwall, we are going to have different views and that is healthy, but on this we need to work in the best interests of the people of Cornwall and bring real change.”

But he said that he felt that the council should be looking at large scale projects to provide housing for local people rather than announcing small schemes with 10 to 20 homes.

He added: “We really need to up the game here – rather than delivering 18 homes let’s deliver 180 and really ramp up the scale of delivery.”

However, Cllr Mitchell said that he hoped that the new administration would deliver on its promise of making housing a priority.

Cllr Monk said that he intends to do so, adding: “I want to make sure that whoever follows me in this job in four years’ time is not just having a few homes being provided in dribs and drabs but has major schemes delivering good quality affordable homes for local people. I am determined to make that happen.”

Having taken up his role in May Cllr Monk admitted that it had been a “baptism of fire” but said that he had worked hard to understand the complexities of the housing situation in Cornwall from talking to people across the whole spectrum, from those who are homeless to those wanting to buy their own homes.

He said: “I am really determined and I want to make sure we are honest to people about what is happening. The new figures on affordable houses are disappointing and we must do better. When I can see local people moving into housing I will be able to say that we are doing something good.

“But at the moment I am trying to turn the ship around and make sure we are delivering what people in Cornwall want and need. I think it is going in the right direction.”

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