Housing: Building affordable homes and sustainable communities

As a country and a region we have failed to build enough homes in the last 40 years. The rate of house building in the West of England has not been enough to cater for our growing region. This puts huge financial pressure on people.  House prices in the West of England are on average 10 times the level of salaries, with the ratio worst in Bath. Private sector rents are among the highest in the country, swallowing up 40% of disposable incomes.

There is a draft “spatial plan” for the housing needs of the next 20 years, produced by the four local councils, including North Somerset.  It is flawed and I will review it if I am elected.  It puts a huge amount of pressure on the towns and villages of South Gloucestershire, the area that is already over-heated.  The document is not integrated with the draft transport plan, also produced by the four councils.  The draft spatial plan sets a target down to 2036 of just over 100,000 new homes (including North Somerset), which needs to be tested rigorously to make sure that it is adequate for our growing economy and demographic change.

The new Mayoral Combined Authority is an opportunity to plan holistically for the economy, housing and transport.  As the spatial plan is the one area where unanimity is required between the regional mayor and the councils, I will work hard with local government colleagues to agree a way forward.  In addition, I want the public sector to once again become an active player in the housing market.  The rate of building required in order to stabilise prices and rents is unlikely to be achieved by the existing private volume builders. My guiding principles for the spatial plan and my other housing ideas are set out below:

  • A presumption in favour of development first within our two cities and several towns on brownfield land. The remaining land that is available for development in our urban centres must be developed intensively.  This means greater density of population, achieved either by building multi-storeys or by terraced homes.  Special consideration must clearly be given to the World Heritage City status of Bath.
  • Land set aside for housing should include a plan for balanced communities. Where the new build is by private sector developers the presumption must be that the units are of different sizes, to cater for people at various stages of life and income levels, with appropriate contributions to affordable homes and local infrastructure.
  • I will establish a West of England Homes social enterprise, Bristol and Bath Homes Limited.  This will build homes for sale and also purpose built blocks of flats for private rental.  The surplus from these commercial activities will be invested in building homes of various sizes for social rent. I will seek power from central government to safeguard these social properties against the “right to buy.” While ownership and control of Bristol and Bath Homes Limited will initially be with the Mayoral Combined Authority I am keen to involve more people.  Community shares would be a good way of raising more capital.  I would also be keen to work with the emerging network of social capital providers.
  • I will establish a Mayoral Development Corporation to assemble land where there are disparate land holding ownerships. I will seek additional borrowing power for the three local authorities in order to finance my proposed housing social enterprise.  I established this principle when I was a DCLG minister, persuading Treasury colleagues to selectively raise the borrowing headroom for councils that were at their debt ceiling.
  • I would prevent any urban sprawl of Bristol north of the M4.  The green belt between city and country must be stoutly defended in that area.  The green belts along the A4 corridor must also be defended.  I will prevent any ludicrous proposal to merge Bath and Bristol into a West Megalopolis.
  • Similarly, I do not want to see towns and villages blended into each other.  For instance, Keynsham should remain distinct from Saltford and Coalpit Heath separate from Yate.  The proposal for a new garden village of Buckover in the north of the region will be seriously flawed if it is planned to be built too near to Thornbury.  This is not a city versus country issue.  The character of our towns and villages is appreciated by Bristolians and Bathonians as much as it is treasured by town and village dwellers. 
  • New homes must be accompanied by enhanced bus and rail services to make the communities sustainable. This need is pressing in Thornbury, Yate and in the Filton Airfield redevelopment. The Somer Valley also needs better transport links and local jobs.
  • I will also provide for a growing appetite for customised and self-build homes. Serviced plots will be incorporated into the spatial plan.  Similarly, there is scope for more home building by community land trusts.
  • I will continue my constructive relationship with private sector house builders.  I am particularly interested in them embracing modular building techniques, in order to reduce the time taken to build a home.  Off-site construction also helps ensure compliance with building regulations for home energy efficiency.  I will also work with the sector to deliver my inclusive skills policy.  I want to see construction apprenticeships taken up by more women and black and minority ethnic people.
  • Bath and Bristol benefit enormously from our four universities.  We already have high retention rates among graduates who decide to build their lives and careers in their adopted cities.  Our thriving economy needs to attract and retain highly skilled workers from all over the world.  Solving the affordability crisis is critical to our economic success.  But the growing number of students has also put huge pressure on the local housing stock and led to the unbalancing of some communities. I will work with the universities to identify land for more purpose built accommodation for students. It is essential that this accommodation is affordable for students from low income families.
  • I will also work with the private sector and use my proposed Bristol and Bath Homes social enterprise to construct purpose built accommodation for older people.  High quality homes for sale or lease would give an opportunity for older people to “right-size” out of family sized homes.
  • House building is not just about numbers; standards matter too.  As the minister responsible for housing regulation I put in place new standards for room dimensions and for greater home energy efficiency.  Home buyers want high standards and I will work with the sector to make sure our new homes are of the highest quality.
  • I will also take an interest in the existing housing stock.  The least energy efficient homes are those built more than a decade ago.  As part of my economic plan to make the West of England a world leader in the low carbon economy I will bring together landlords, financiers, energy companies and others to plan for the retrofitting of older properties to increase insulation, reduce carbon emissions and eliminate fuel poverty.
  • Finally, I have long taken an interest in the rights of tenants.  As a minister I put in place various new regulations to protect private rental sector tenants. I will work with the local councils and various campaign groups such as Shelter and Acorn to make the West of England a fair and secure place to rent a home.