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Sustaining communities in South Shropshire

September 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By Heather Kidd in Challenge
Map of South Shropshire

Map of South Shropshire

Heather Kidd describes a radical approach to affordable housing in a rural district

Housing is a contentious issue all over England. In the south, local authorities are required to build too fast for local communities to deal with while in the north there are too many empty properties, many difficult to sell.

South Shropshire has a problem which many authorities may covet (especially those in the south) - the need to build very few open market houses: the Local Plan specifies fewer than 500 to be built by 2011. No real threat to green field sites there then, except that most of our housing sites are green field owing to the rural nature of South Shropshire.

The picture for affordable housing is very different. South Shropshire's District Housing Needs survey flagged up a local affordable housing need of 1,434 homes by 2011. What is more, most of our settlements do not fit the 'sustainable' definition used by Government: without any development they will be even less sustainable, with shops, pubs and schools beginning to reach the limit of viability.

These problems caused South Shropshire District Council to very carefully consider its planning policy and its application to serve our communities and fulfil their needs. Our aim was also to prevent development control being shut down to development and to help to maintain the character and agricultural nature of our sparsely populated and very rural district.

The solution we came to in the end is radical and should ease pressure on the social rented sector. It should allow people to own their own homes where they were born and or where they work. And, as a strategic housing authority, we can build in standards for energy saving and eco-friendly homes. We hope to move towards this environmentally-friendly development as technology and construction costs allow.

How will the policy work?

There are a number of strands to it so that the effort put into delivery of one or more houses means that they are there for the local community in perpetuity. People applying must:

There will be no open market housing built in any of our villages and hamlets, only local needs affordable, to buy, part buy or rent. Open market housing will continue in our six major towns but here 50% of the sites will be required to be affordable, although other community gains may vary this slightly.

The new policy will mean that all development in the countryside will only happen on exception sites for one, two or more properties. These sites do not therefore have open market value. So why should a farmer or landowner sell? The answer is that they will receive around five times the agricultural price for the land.

This policy in part helps keep these homes affordable: the 'developers' profit is taken out but a reasonable builder's profit is built in. Affordability is linked to average local wages for the area and our calculations indicate that a three bedroom family house should be valued at about £75,000.

How do we keep these affordable for local people in perpetuity? The Council has decided that this must be done in two ways. First, a 106 agreement must be placed on the property. Then, to strengthen that, the Council keeps a 1% 'golden' share as a control mechanism; it has no other value.

What happens when the house comes to be sold? Two rules apply:

If no one comes forward to buy the property it has to be offered to our partner Registered Social Landlords (RSL's) and then to the District Council for possession. If there is still no buyer it may be sold on the open market but the profit is shared 50/50 with the District Council. This money will then be put straight back into other affordable housing initiatives.

The scheme also allows for farmer's retirement where ADAS would not permit an extra dwelling with a 106 agreement. This allows a new build that adds to the pool of affordable housing to buy.

The Council recognises that this policy will need significant driving to achieve a reasonable number of such properties. We are looking at a Joint Venture Company with builders, mortgage companies and RSL's to help us to deliver. This should make mortgages easier and building more straightforward. We will use compulsory purchase when necessary to shift the land banking culture.

The advantage of such a company is that we can link this with training initiatives in the building industry and with the new vocational training that the Learning & Skills Council (LSC) is looking to implement. This is good for sparsely populated areas where training happens at great distance from students' homes and often prevents it progress. We hope that this up-skilling on a more local basis will reduce long distance travel for training and encourage take up.

Overall, this is a scheme that hopefully will keep our settlements sustainable without using huge tracts of green fields while also maintaining our local communities. It should also encourage skills and local jobs as part of the whole picture. Eco-friendly homes, which are cheap to run and therefore help people on low rural wages, is also an aim as long as the property is kept in the affordable range. We also recognise that some families may need to upsize as families grow and, therefore, that move-on accommodation must be built, as must retirement properties which would free up family housing.

The government has indicated that it may look sympathetically at our request that housing numbers should rise to fulfil local need. This will be driven by need and not by the developers: this must be a better and more gentle way to develop our villages. Present open market housing remains just that and hopefully will encourage the new blood required by most settlements.

Our communities are our strength and we must find ways to protect and support them. Could this be the answer for the south of England and London key workers? Exmoor National Park has now also adopted this policy.