We are failing to provide enough homes for our communities, says Richard Kitson.
If you don't want to know the result, look away now. The depressing flow of statistics amply demonstrating that we are not building enough new homes continue even though most of us would accept that in a 21st century civilised society people should have a decent home. But also, for the region to have a sustainable and successful economy, employers need to be able to rely on having committed employees who can afford to live and work here.
Whilst like all of Europe we have been buffeted in this recession, the economy has not been as badly hit as it could have been and at 5.7% the South West has the lowest unemployment rate of any English region.
However, where we are lamentably failing is in our responsibility to ensure that the number of homes that our communities need is provided. However you cut the cake, it's beyond argument that we should be building around 27,000 new homes a year just to keep up with the natural increase in households as we continue to produce children and live longer. For years we have undershot the target, but just before the recession and public sector funding cuts began to bite, the region achieved its best performance in recent decades with 18,000 new homes. Since then we have fallen back again.
We all know that the region attracts people wishing to move here, mostly from the south east of England. And during the last few years London house prices have benefitted from an influx of foreign purchasers giving those wishing to make that move to our part of the country the money to do so. But if that is seen as a problem then surely the answer is not to limit supply as that only prices those with less money out of a home of their own. It was over eight years ago that the South West Housing Initiative came together to draw attention to the increasingly pressing need to provide sufficient homes. As Planning Minister Nick Boles MP accepted last month, the root of our housing crisis is in the failure of successive past Governments to ensure that enough land is provided for development. He went on to say that "in the last decade the Netherlands built 4.4 new homes for every 1,000 inhabitants and the French 5.6. In England we built just 2.9".
It seems that collectively we lack the willingness to face the fact that we need more homes. Recent research showed that since the abolition of the regional spatial strategies (RSS), south west local authorities have led the country in making the biggest planned housing target reductions for the future, cutting an average of 5,000 homes a year, or 18% of those needed.
The Government believes that greater localism will lead to more homes being built. But the RSS results suggest that we have a long way to go before local councillors decide that proposing homes is a vote winner.
Now we all believe that the South West is a beautiful part of the country. It seems popular to portray developers as wanting to concrete over the countryside. But around 87% of the region is countryside so that would require some effort and no one is opposed to preserving the best of our environment. There should also be no dispute that new homes have to be well designed, of good quality and appropriately located. What we desperately need now is for local people to seize the initiative. There are signs that this is happening in a few parts of the region but most politicians are still reluctant to put their heads above the parapet. We must get greater public awareness of the facts and show local voters that saying "no homes here" also means no younger generations and a risk to local economies. And with the new planning focus, local people now have the opportunity to push for high standards and tangible benefits for communities as part of the deal.
Research by Shelter shows that if the cost of food had risen in line with house prices over the last 40 years, a four-pint carton of milk would now cost £10.45 and a bunch of six bananas £8.47. We wouldn't accept that; so why do we oppose keeping homes affordable? Other countries with growing populations have kept pace with demand with the result house prices and rents have been more stable in real terms.
If we don't break this damaging circle market forces will prevail. As the economy recovers and job confidence rises, banks will increase lending but delivery will remain insufficient and once again we'll be inflating that housing bubble.
At the Davos economic summit, the Prime Minister appealed to multi-national companies to "wake up and smell the coffee". Well, there are plenty of young people around who would love to be able to wake up in their own home and do just that.
Richard Kitson, OBE, is chairman of the South West Housing Initiative, which champions the need for housing for a successful economy in the South West. He is also a former President of the Chartered Institute of Housing.