Dispelling the myths about affordable housing
In this article, we talk to Adrian Cooper, Shropshire Council’s Planning Policy & Strategy Manager of Economic Growth. Adrian has been instrumental in developing the Right Home, Right Place initiative, and in the county’s wider housing policy. Here, he dispels some of the most common myths and misconceptions about affordable housing in Shropshire.
Myth #1: Affordable housing is basically social housing…
This does tend to be quite a tricky topic to explain, because – as with most sectors – there are different meanings attached the terminology and official definitions. But ultimately, no; affordable housing is not the same thing as social housing.
In broad terms, affordable housing is property provided below the open market value – usually at around 60% of the market value. Affordable homes are usually required by people who have a strong local connection to the area – such as growing up there, having family there or working there – but who can’t afford to purchase or rent a property within the parish.
Social housing – particularly social rented housing – is housing that’s provided by the Council or a local Housing Association at very low subsidised rents, and that’s allocated on the basis of serious and urgent housing need. Usually, social rented housing is offered to someone who’s currently homeless, facing homelessness, or who would otherwise have to stay in a guest house or bedsit unless they could be given access to a house.
Myth #2: Affordable homes will bring ‘the wrong sort of people’ to our parish
This is a common misconception which tends to derive from a combination of factors; a lack of understanding of how the housing system works, general fear of the unknown and, sadly, a degree of social prejudice.
As we explored in the first myth, social housing – particularly social rented housing – is provided to those in dire housing need. Where that housing is provided depends entirely on availability; so while the person in need may be based in a city, there might not be any housing options available there, and therefore they might be placed in a nearby town or village.
This may result in a culture clash between people from urban settings and the relatively affluent area they might be placed in. But there are two points to note here; firstly, social rent is only provided on a temporary basis until a more suitable property can be found. Secondly, the situation I’ve described above is very much the exception, rather than the norm.
Affordable housing has an entirely different set of criteria. These are properties which are essentially provided for local people who already live in, work in or have an historic connection to the parish. Usually, each parish has a Local Lettings Policy where rather than being allocated on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, properties are offered to people with housing needs in the local area – people who have already lived in that parish for a long time.
What type of people would affordable housing bring to a parish? It could be someone who’s grown up in the parish but still lives at home with their parents because there aren’t any properties on the open market within their budget. It could be an elderly couple who can no longer afford to run their existing property, and who need to downsize because of things like heating costs or restricted physical ability.
It could be the person who serves you in your local Post Office each day, who travels miles to get to work but can’t afford to live in the parish because no affordable homes are available. It could be a young professional who’s currently paying a lot of money renting a property on the open market, and who would really like to buy their first home.
I think most people who have assumptions about the ‘sort of people’ who buy or rent affordable homes would be very surprised if they actually met some of the people who are moving into these properties.
Myth #3: Affordable housing will devalue my open market property
There isn’t really any evidence to suggest affordable housing would impact on the value of an existing property on the open market. On the contrary, affordable homes have the potential to help parishes create rich, vibrant communities which can only make the area and its amenities more attractive and sustainable in the long term.
Myth #4: Affordable homes will probably look awful and ‘out of place’ in our parish
There are a number of larger national housing developers who tend to package up affordable housing as rather an afterthought. You can see these developments up and down the country, where the affordable portion of housing is tucked away behind open market properties where no one can see them. Again, this reflects the degree of social segregation we’ve talked about, which really isn’t acceptable.
With local developers, however, that isn’t the case. They usually have a well-balanced range of mixed styles to appeal to the different ages and interests of parish residents. But the most important point to note is that if a parish takes part in the Housing Needs Survey and identifies a clear, unmet housing need, they can actually have extensive input as a community into the look and location of any affordable housing built in their parish.
This is called a Community-Led Housing Scheme, where the parish councillors, wider members of the local community, representatives from Shropshire Council and representatives from the chosen Registered Provider come together to explore potential available sites, select the most suitable location and determine the visual style of their new housing.
These schemes not only bring communities together, but are very much aligned with local parish plans for sustainability – since providing additional and affordable housing will help to secure the future of local shops and services.
A wonderful example of a Community-Led Housing Scheme is in the parish of Prees, Whitchurch, where the parish council are working with Wrekin Housing Trust, to deliver a range of affordable homes.
Myth #5: We don’t really need affordable housing in our parish
There are indeed some parishes throughout Shropshire who have a thriving community and minimal housing needs, but generally, affordable housing is needed everywhere – quite simply, due to the widening gap between average salaries and average house prices in Shropshire.
For communities to have a socially sustainable future, they need a balanced age range. If a parish is largely made up of wealthier retirees, it might be a desirable and exclusive location at present but over time, the continued aging of that community would have a restricted ability to meet its own needs, which would ultimately challenge the attractiveness of moving there.
Take healthcare, for example. As we age, we need more healthcare – but what happens if the nurses taking care of us can’t afford to live nearby because there are no affordable homes? They move towards urban areas where they can afford to buy or rent a property, and we’re left with limited staff, services and resources that can’t meet our needs.
An interesting example is Bridgnorth; it’s a beautiful town, but it has the potential to become a divided community. The age of its population is rising at twice the national average, while on the opposite end of the scale, lots of young people work in Bridgnorth who can’t afford to buy there.
33% of Shropshire will be aged over 65 by 2030 – in South Shropshire, it’s 45%. Without a balanced age range, there will be limited community involvement from residents over time, which impacts on local shops, pubs, post offices, transport and all the other amenities that make a community viable.
Doing nothing is not an option, and sensible parish councils have already grasped that. By understanding the need for more balanced demographics, and recognising that providing homes to those with strong local links will help to maintain that parish’s history and culture, they’re creating communities that will thrive – now and into the future.