It’s Catch 22 here in Shropshire. Over the years, we have built homes that are larger than average. That means that four in ten homes in the county have two or more spare bedrooms. Many older people would like to downsize but they can’t find suitable smaller housing in the villages and market towns they live in. That in turn means that growing families can’t move into bigger homes. The shortage of smaller houses means that younger people cannot afford homes near where they live and work. It also pushes up rents and prevents people getting onto the housing ladder.
There are factors that make this Catch 22 situation worse. Shropshire has too many empty homes. We don’t have as much social housing as the rest of the country. We have an oversized housing stock. And Shropshire Council has squirrelled more than £4 million in the bank rather than spending it on affordable housing.
Shropshire Council has taxed developers £6.6 million in affordable housing contributions but it has only spent £2.5 million of that on building houses. The £4.1 million languishing in its bank accounts could build a decent sized estate of affordable homes. Better still, the council could build small clusters of homes in villages around the county where they are desperately needed.
Progress on tackling empty homes in Shropshire has stalled and the number of vacant properties is beginning to increase. Nearly one-third of the 4,400 empty homes in the county have been empty for more than six months.
We have a deficit of affordable social housing in Shropshire. Just 13% of our housing in Shropshire are social homes, well below the England average of 17%. If we had the same proportion of affordable housing stock as elsewhere in England, we would have 6,000 more social homes. That would more than wipe out the housing waiting list, which stands at 5,370 households.
We are also a county of bigger than average homes. In Shropshire, just 33% of housing stock has one or two bedrooms. In similar rural counties it is 37% and nationally it is 40%.
One of the consequences of having a larger than average housing stock is that 43% of Shropshire households have two or more spare bedrooms.
The shortage of smaller accommodation also makes it difficult for older people to downsize, freeing up larger housing stock for those with growing families. In rural Shropshire many people cannot downsize without leaving the village or market town they have called home for many years.
Despite the shortage of smaller housing, we are still giving planning permission for large houses that local people can’t afford, not the smaller affordable homes they need. This is particularly true in the most rural parts of Shropshire.
It is not just a problem at local level. Government announcements saying that it is affordable housing built are belied by the statistics.
Last year, the government underspent on housing by £812 million. It gave the money back to the Treasury saying it was “no longer required”. Ministers diverted £72 million from affordable housing to the Help to Buy scheme, which subsidises first time buyers. Whitehall spends four times as much subsidising private housing as does building affordable homes. It has splashed £250 million on the Starter Home Scheme for first time buyers without delivering a single new home.
Last week, housing secretary James Brokenshire announced that councils could borrow more to build new council houses. That’s hardly a handout but it will allow more affordable housing to be built. The only problem is that the rules have been written in a way that excludes Shropshire from benefiting from the scheme. Just about everywhere in London and the South East will benefit from the scheme, but that goes without saying.
We are in desperate need of small affordable homes in our villages and market towns. If we don’t build more small houses, our rural areas will die as young people and growing families are driven out. We must ensure our local and national planning system supports sensitive developments of small homes.
As a first step, Shropshire Council must move quickly to spend the £4 million it has in the bank to build small affordable homes in our rural areas.
. This is a quote from the 1951 Conservative manifesto. It is applicable now as it was in the age of Churchill and Macmillan.
. Source: 2011 Census. The rural peers are the CIPFA statistical neighbours for Shropshire: Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Somerset, Suffolk, Wiltshire, Worcestershire.
. A nationwide study found that 55% of people aged 55 or over plan to downsize to a cheaper property later in life. The main reason for downsizing is to have a home that is easier to maintain later in life. For four in ten, the lack of suitable housing was a barrier to downsizing. A second study, also commercially sponsored, shows a broad range of reasons for not downsizing for 55 and overs. One in three do not want to leave their friends and neighbours.