Rural Summit – affordable housing

An ARC News Service report about the Rural Summit – Young Families – an Endangered Species? – held at Tennants Auction Centre in Leyburn on Wednesday, November 19. Coun John Blackie, leader of Richmondshire District Council (RDC) outlined the problem of migration from rural areas and Nicola Furbisher, managing director of the Yorkshire Post, emphasised the need to find solutions. A key problem was the lack of affordable housing and the speakers who addressed this issue were: Callum McKeon, RDC corporate director; David Butterworth, Chief Executive of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA); Paul Lightfoot, Property Director of Broadacres Housing Association;  and Phil Taylor, Commercial Manager of the Darlington Building Society.  The summit was organised by the RDC and sponsored by the Yorkshire Post. 

Those who took part in the discussion session were Dr Peter Annison, Ropeworks, Hawes;  Coun Linda Cowling, leader of Ryedale District Council; Colin Dales, RDC director; Emily Nicholas; Craven District Coun Carl Lis, and Richmondshire District Coun Yvonne Peacock. It was during that discussion that Mr McKeon outline further the idea for the council to set up a trading company to have an ‘arms-length’ approach to the provision of affordable housing.


Young families are an endangered species in rural and deeply rural areas of Richmondshire Coun John Blackie, told the Rural Summit.   Above: Coun John Blackie with Kayleigh Thompson (RDC Youth Council lead) and Emily Thompson (right) who is an ex-chairman of the youth council.

Coun Blackie told the summit that there had been a 26 per cent drop in the number of pupils attending the excellent primary schools in the Upper Dales in the last 20 years. “No local community can survive for long without young families in their midst. The figures I’ve spelt out indicate that many of them are not a generation away from collapse.

“Standing on the side lines are organisations which have a key role to play in social and economic development. Hoping something will turn up and improve the situation will not do. Unless a new way of addressing the crisis is implemented things will go from bad to worse,” he said.

He stressed that the various organisations had to work in partnership and added: “No one organisation holds the key to finding the answer to the crisis. It is a multi-faceted problem (that needs) a multi-faceted response.

“To resolve the crisis we will need new, fast and different actions – not long drawn out excuses to justify more of the same. If you apply the same old thinking to the same old problem – you end up with the same old problem. Small is big in rural areas.”

He quoted the example of the workshops in Reeth and said: “They might be a drop in the ocean in Leeds but they have had a huge impact on the local economy in the Upper Dales. Small investment can generate a big difference.”

The Managing Director of the Yorkshire Post, Nicola Furbisher, explained why:

“In this age of austerity cuts to local authority budgets combined with soaring house prices and petrol prices (have left) these communities on the brink. And the disappearance of cherished pubs, post offices and village shops, not to mention key services such as schools and maternity care, (means) there is less of a reason to attract people to our rural areas.”

She had been struck by the fact that the average household income of a local family was £22,100 while the average house price was £270,800. And the average age of a resident in the Upper Dales was 47. What with other factors like the drop in the number of children attending rural schools they needed to talk not only about the problems but also solutions.

“You need solutions before it is too late – before the very nature of the Yorkshire region changes for ever,” she warned. And any solutions they found could be models for other communities.

Callum McKeon, remit as a RDC corporate director includes trying to find a way of breaking the deadlock affecting the provision of affordable housing in the district. He said that despite all the efforts of the district council and neighbouring authorities little headway had been made with this.

“The figures are indicating that despite all the best efforts of all the people involved, of all the policies we have, the numbers just aren’t there. So we need to find out why that is and we need to come up with some new practical solutions.

“So why don’t we actually sit down and talk to the housing associations and find out what are the problems in dealing with affordable houses. Because maybe we can actually identify what those problems are, identify the constraints that housing associations are working under. Maybe rather than taking our traditional role as simply a planning authority we need to adopt a new approach and actually act as a development partner in sharing those risks whatever they may be to help deliver affordable houses. In other words becoming an active partner, an active risk sharer.

“The district council could also play a more proactive role in sharing the knowledge it has gained by working with the Ministry of Defence to provide more houses at Catterick Garrison with the YDNPA. He wondered also if the YDNPA would be interested in a joint approach to the central government to discuss whether the current planning regime helped rural areas deliver the types of services that were needed.

“Two voices are definitely going to better than one and we have got two departments working together. They will have ideas we haven’t thought of. If we act together we maybe can get the ear of central government – maybe get some new initiatives through.

“The district council has decided it is going to utilise its communities opportunity fund and actually put £30,000 into looking at establishing a hands on local authority trading company to deliver affordable housing. Now there are hundreds of questions associated with that idea but may be the start would be with the local authority buying up vacant properties to recycle them and put them back onto the market.

“The other extreme is the local authority actually takes on the role of developer – acquires sites and undertakes development itself. We know other local authorities are doing this. The key thing for me is – there’s been a clear commitment from the district council to try something new, to try something positive, and ….we can start straight away.”

David Butterworth, the Chief Executive of the YDNPA, remarked: “It’s fantastic that this event is shining a spotlight on this.

“I think this is a last chance for the area. I think this is the last chance for my generation …to be part of the solution of this problem. If we can’t be part of that solution we need to get out of the way and let young people take control of their own destiny.

“ I think what’s clear in all the work we are doing in the area of affordable housing is it’s not a national park issue – it’s a rural one. It’s happening all across the country from Cornwall – where a town council has caused uproar this week with a proposal to ban second homes -to Dumfries and Galloway.”

He said that with 20,000 people and 11,500 houses in the Yorkshire Dales National Park there wasn’t a shortage of housing. But there was a shortage of affordable housing. “Between 2001 and 2011 there were 1,000 new homes and the population increased by 100 people. What’s happened? What’s happening is that in 2001 15 per cent of that housing stock was second home or holiday cottage – that’s gone to 23 per cent in 2011. Nearly a quarter of the entire housing stock – that is not a viable position for the future.”

He explained that open market housing was being bought either by elderly people or for second and holiday homes. But it was now difficult to obtain finance and mortgages for houses restricted to local occupancy.

Thirty sites had been allocated in the YDNPA’s housing development plan with 50 per cent of those 230 new homes being for local market housing and the other half for affordable homes. By March this year 37 of those had been built, planning permission had been granted for a further 46 and discussions were on-going concerning three sites for another 40 dwellings. But only nine of those 133 houses were in Richmondshire.

“So what are we doing about this issue?” he asked. “Well the (Authority) members have ordered an urgent selective review of all aspects of housing delivery. The public consultation will start straight after Christmas and will include several practical proposals to remove barriers including broadening the local occupancy criteria so that the whole district can actually benefit – Leyburn, Catterick, Richmond – if there is no demand for houses within the National Park. That should give greater certainty to lenders and purchasers that properties will sell.

“Secondly we are looking at the mix of houses on the allocated sites. If necessary there may have to be an element of open market housing to improve the developer viability of the site.”

In the new local plan, which he expected would be published in July 2015, there would be provision for the conversion of roadside barns for local occupancy.

The YDNPA wanted to work with district councils to try and resolve the problem and added: “We would like to see the districts and county councils funding and supporting the investigation into housing finance.”

And then he added: “Let me upset a few people here. Lots of park residents and parish councils do not want housing. So if we do some work as partners bringing together their schemes into the market the politicians need to face down some opposition. That is a very very difficult thing to do. I don’t underestimate it as an officer because if you’ve got the community saying we don’t want housing here, that can be a major problem.”

He said the YDNPA was also looking at the provision of self-build homes and rural help to buy schemes to try and resolve the lending issues for dwellings with local occupancy conditions.

Paul Lightfoot, the Property Director for Broadacres Housing Association and Phil Taylor, the Commercial Manager for the Darlington Building Society, explained why there were problems with providing affordable housing in rural areas.

Mr Lightfoot said that the regulations were much tighter these days for lenders, with an emphasis upon value for money and control of the business.They had to be careful in the planning stage not to waste money, raise expectations or cause frustrations.

Any grants available from the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) were included in the financial assessment of whether a housing development scheme would be financially viable and sustainable. Rural schemes were more costly and so required more subsidies but the grants from the HCA had fallen in the past few years.

Rents were set using a national formula and they had to be sure that there would be a sufficient number of people wanting to rent properties. For this they relied on questionnaires and surveys but were those fit for purpose he asked.

So it was difficult to convince his board that they should continue to invest in subsidised housing and it would be easier if they could share the risk with partners. H explained:

“I think the local councils have a role to play – they can identify sites. Most importantly they need to be a consistent and visible support all through the process. I am not criticising the planning system – but (we do) need to try to reduce the risk. Planning conditions can add costs.”

He especially mentioned the infrastructure conditions adding that for a small scheme an additional £1,000 could be the tipping point in making it unviable.

“Is it reasonable for a small scheme to improve footpaths in a village?” he asked.  “Is it reasonable to charge for work on verges and streams for which the county council should take responsibility? Is it right that a small scheme of six properties should spend £30,000 on facilities – and then charge £1,000 a year for maintenance of those facilities? That adds £3 a week on rents.

“We understand that we are all suffering from austerity conditions. But we need to work together for the common good to provide good quality affordable housing.”

In response to a question he said: “We are not trying to say there isn’t a need. I think it is more how we demonstrate that need to convince those who will invest in those properties to feel that there is no risk to their investment. I think we need to explore new ways to identify that need rather than by surveys. Maybe we do need partnerships to share the risk.”

Of the increased financial regulations he said: “There’s been a severe tightening in the affordability rules that all lenders have had to instigate. So all lenders are now fully responsible for assessing if a borrower can afford a loan. Lenders will still grant interest only loans but only if there is a credible strategy for repayment of the capital at the end of the term. And a mortgage lender must also check that the person can afford the repayments now and also in the future”

Although this had particularly affected low income buyers there were initiatives to help first time buyers including help to buy, equity loans, shared ownership and mortgage guarantees.

He said they were trying to make the process more streamlined to reduce the risks for the lenders and they were also working closer with the housing associations and local authorities.

He asked that planning conditions and section 106 local occupancy agreements should be kept as simple as possible and added that some clauses could lead to refusal by mortgage lenders.

During discussion time Dr Peter Annison, co-owner of the Ropeworks in Hawes stated: “The National Park is attempting to reduce the cost of certain houses by imposing section 106 occupancy restrictions. As you have heard that gives rise to all sorts of problems with the mortgage lenders.” He supported the idea of the district council being more involved with the provision of affordable homes for rent.

Mr Taylor agreed with him explaining that the hardest part was getting all the partners to work together. He said that there needed to be a commitment by all stakeholders to make any proposed housing scheme work. He preferred the help to buy scheme which had introduced incentives for developers and house builders.

Coun Linda Cowling, the leader of Ryedale District Council, said that many people were not going to get onto the housing property ladder and so there was a need for more rented affordable housing. The councils had found that rented housing was notoriously expensive to run and it was likely that the housing associations had the same problems. So they should work with the private sector to save money and make rented affordable housing more affordable.

Mr McKeon replied that was why the RDC was considering the idea of a trading company. “One of the advantages of setting up a trading company is that you are at arms-length as a local authority. We are at the very early stage of looking into this. But we think that there’s got to be a way based upon what other local authorities are doing around the country … and seem to be operating in a way that is economical, efficient and delivering the types of properties and tenures that are required for their particular areas.”

Colin Dales, a RDC director, said in response to a question from Emily Nicholas, said that there were schemes to help young people and mentioned the Young Peoples Pathway.

And Craven District Coun Carl Lis, who is a member of the YDNPA, expressed concern about the way the rents for affordable houses were increasing.

Richmondshire District Coun Yvonne Peacock described how a planning inspector for Dorset had turned down a proposal in the YDNPA’s housing development plan for four houses in Aysgarth. That scheme for four houses would not have involved a housing association. “The inspector turned it down because one resident who lived next door (to the site) objected. One inspector could throw out what we the local people wanted.”

Mr Butterworth agreed with her.

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