Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Memorandum by Devon County Council (AH 36)

SUMMARY

Introduction/Current Housing Situation in Devon

    —  The issue of affordable housing remains of concern to the County Council. Through partnership working and use of Council Tax funding from second homes, Devon is working to address needs. Data setting out the severity of the issue is contained in Appendix 1. The impact of high house prices is compounded by lower than average earnings. In migration will sustain housing demand for the future and the popularity of the County for retirement and second homes further exacerbates the problem.

The Need for an Integrated Strategic Approach

    —  Devon supports a housing and planning framework that takes account of both the needs of the housing market and sustainability objectives—with a greater emphasis on understanding the nature of interventions required that housing market assessment suggests and more clarity regarding the use of market indicators alongside sustainable development objectives.

    —  Greater emphasis and guidance is required on the complementary role of housing and planning strategies at all levels.

    —  Clarity of purpose around the role of housing need assessment, local targeted housing need assessment and other more locally based survey work needs to be reflected in guidance and good practice if duplication of effort is to be avoided.

    —  Guidance needs to be sensitive to more localised market scenarios and reflect the cross boundary relationships that often exist between neighbouring authorities. Current proposals are too simplistic—and do not adequately address all forms of land supply [such as windfall sites].

    —  Timely provision of infrastructure is another facet of sustainable development—private developers cannot fund all requirements especially where strategic proposals are implemented.

    —  Opportunities to capture land value through s106 mechanisms is greater in urban areas, placing a greater reliance on public subsidy in more rural areas. It is to such sites that subsidy should be steered.

Locally Integrated Approaches

    —  The County Council supports an integrated approach, as evidenced by community approaches to regeneration and housing delivery [see Appendix 2 for case studies].

    —  A more formal recognition in policy of the role played by community and village plans in bringing forward housing proposals would be welcomed.

    —  Greater certainty concerning the availability of public subsidy for rural housing, and fast tracking of planning appeals involving affordable housing would help.

Monitoring of Housing Supply & Release of Land

    —  National guidance should establish common methodology and frameworks/definitions for monitoring to allow for comparison between regional and local areas.

National Policy and its Impacts

    —  Although an area of high housing demand, the strategic spatial response in the south west needs to be more attuned to the dispersed settlement pattern than national policy promotes.

    —  Housing market assessment methodology needs to take account of remote rural areas with no obvious urban focus.

    —  There is a need for more research to understand the financial and fiscal measures that might impact on the market and to "rural proof" decisions across ministries that impact on rural housing.

INTRODUCTION

  This evidence is submitted by Devon County Council. The Council has been concerned for a number of years about the housing situation in the County and has been actively pursuing initiatives in partnership with housing authorities and other organisations to improve the consistency of housing policy, and the effectiveness of delivery. The County Council is an active member of both the Devon Strategic Housing Group and the Rural Housing Partnership, and contributes financially to three Devon-wide housing posts: the Affordable Housing Co-ordinator, the Devon Homelessness Strategy Officer; and the Rural Housing Enabler. Devon County Council has made available up to £3.9 million of Council Tax/second homes money to assist delivery and co-ordination of affordable housing [2004-05]. For the period 2005-06 money raised from Council Tax on second homes will continue to be made available to the housing sector. Around half the sum is being returned to Local Authorities to assist their housing programmes, while the remainder will be directed to housing priorities identified through the Local Area Agreement and LPSA2.

  The evidence below is divided into several sections.

  1.  The current housing situation in Devon.

  2.  The need for an integrated approach to housing solutions.

  3.  Monitoring housing supply and the release of land.

  4.  National policy and co-ordination.

  Appendix 1: Data

  Appendix 2: Case Studies

1.  THE CURRENT HOUSING SITUATION IN DEVON [SEE APPENDIX 1]

  1.1 Devon is one of the most sparsely populated Counties in England, with few urban areas of any significant size and a population which is largely resident in smaller market towns and village communities. Of the 422 parishes 97% have a population of less than 10,000 and 74% have a population of less than 1,000. The largest urban area is the city of Exeter [population 111,100]. The Unitary Authorities of Torbay and Plymouth [populations 130,000 and 241,000 respectively] also exert a considerable influence over rural Devon, particularly in terms of their job markets, but their size and scale is still small by regional and national standards.

  1.2  The affordability of housing is an issue across the whole County, although the severity of the situation varies. House prices have risen dramatically since 1999 but it is the combination of this with lower than average earnings that creates the pattern of affordability. Recent work for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation89[89] shows that of the 37 authorities nationally where the average house prices to incomes of younger working households exceeds 5.5:1, 16 were in the South West. The list includes the Devon Districts of South Hams, Teignbridge, West Devon, North Devon and the Unitary Authority of Torbay. The introductory remarks to the report say:

    ". . . it is important not to lose sight of the profound implications that the lack of affordable housing to buy, as well as to rent, will have for rural communities, because, even if it were possible to meet the needs of those in the `social housing' market, there would still be a very significant shortfall of affordable homes. Those people in the `intermediate' market . . . would normally look to the open market to meet their housing needs. If there is no such `intermediate' housing available and they are effectively forced to leave the area to find suitable housing, then rural communities are likely to become more socially and economically polarised, and, consequently, less sustainable . . ."

  1.3  The situation in rural areas is also made more acute by the general lack of smaller, cheaper houses in the overall housing stock. Anecdotally there is evidence of first time buyers, especially in the South Hams area reportedly looking to the relatively cheaper housing in Plymouth as a means of securing a foothold on the housing ladder. The pressure on the housing market is reflected in numbers of households which are on the housing register, and the numbers of homelessness acceptances.

  1.4  Demographic and housing forecasts for Devon indicate a sustained demand for housing. Population growth is driven by in-migration. Longer term migration forecasts prepared for the Regional Assembly suggest that in the period 2001-26 the population [of Devon, Torbay and Plymouth] is expected to grow by 9.2%, with household growth rates—driven by falling household size and changing lifestyle—rising by 22.2%. The popularity of the County as a retirement and holiday destination places additional demands on the housing market. At the time of the 2001 census over a third of East Devon's population was over 60; in South Hams 11% of household spaces were a second home, illustrating the attractiveness of coast and countryside.

  1.5  To help meet housing demand and to support districts in their planning and housing authority roles, the Devon Structure Plan has been reviewed to 2016. [90]This sets out housing supply figures for Local Plans and Local Development Frameworks reflecting the policies and proposals of Regional Planning Guidance. [91]The policies of the Structure Plan promote a sustainable approach to development, with an emphasis on the role of the principal urban areas and the creation of self sufficient, viable market towns and rural communities. Proposals require development plans to deliver around 4,370 dwellings a year, including two new communities to help address the housing needs of the Exeter and Plymouth sub regions.

  1.6  Progress in preparing Local Plans and Local Development Frameworks has varied across Devon, but all districts have now begun work on rolling forward their plans and proposals to 2016. Annual housing completions have followed a cyclical pattern fluctuating around RPG10 levels of provision. Over the period 1995-2003 around 95% of RPG10 provision was achieved. Completion rates are currently close to regional requirements.

2.  THE NEED FOR AN INTEGRATED STRATEGIC APPROACH

  2.1  The County Council welcomed the Government's proposals to merge Regional Planning and Housing Bodies. The preparation of Regional Spatial Strategy and Regional Housing Strategy needs to be aligned and complementary, drawing on the same evidence base to support proposals and policies. In addition, the role that housing plays in economic development should be reflected in Regional Economic Strategies. A clear "audit trail" of linkages between housing and planning strategies is required down to the local level with more effort made to ensure Local Authority Housing Strategies and Local Development Frameworks are developed in an integrated fashion.

  2.2  A plan led "whole market" approach to housing delivery is supported, with clear links between homes [numbers, types, mix], jobs, facilities, services and infrastructure. This is in line with the Government's objective of creating sustainable communities where people actively choose to live, and lies at the heart of both urban and rural policy initiatives.

  2.3  The Barker Review was a welcome overview of the housing market from an economic perspective. The role of the planning system has traditionally been to ensure development is directed to, or controlled at, locations so that a range of sustainability objectives can be met. This points to a more considered role for the planning system in reconciling competing objectives in the interest of the community as a whole, and positive intervention to secure affordable housing for those unable to compete on the open market. The use of market information to signal the release of land does not have regard to the wider issues of "balanced" development—in particular the desire to locate housing close to employment and areas of employment potential, in locations where opportunities for sustainable transport can be maximised. At its most extreme the release of land in response to demand could result in consolidation of existing consumer preferences, with adverse impact on communities and the environment in both high and low demand areas. "Planning for Sustainable Communities" recognises that the market on its own is not able to capture the externalities of development, but is unclear as to the balance that should be drawn between responding to the market and meeting social and environmental objectives. There is a distinction between addressing housing demand and meeting need for housing.

  2.4  Housing market area assessments are being developed in Devon, based on housing market area profiles identified for the Regional Housing Body by DTZ Pieda. [92]The role of these assessments and their use, is as yet not fully developed, with final guidance awaited. There is a need for guidance on housing related work to be complementary—with scope for different tiers of assessment to "nest" within each other, and for different local authorities to reflect a possible range of market scenarios that mirrors their local circumstances. The emphasis in the draft guidance on the Local Development Framework—and the focus on land release in response to market scenarios at the district level, does not allow for situations where sub markets of both high and low demand may co-exist within one administrative boundary, or where for example, high demand areas adjacent to a district require the release of land in another. Where such situations exist, joint Local Development Documents should be promoted. Adequate forward planning and availability of readily available land is supported, but more guidance on the role of windfall sites in land management and land supply is also required.

  2.5  An integrated approach to planning and housing demands that development and associated infrastructure proceeds hand in hand. The current practice of developer obligations secured through s106 arrangements leads to competing demands for infrastructure contributions. There are real conflicts between securing infrastructure investment and delivering affordable housing in new development—and this does have potential economic implications where the delivery of strategic proposals is concerned [Devon's new communities for example]. Affordable housing has become the greatest draw on resources—leaving less for schools, roads, public transport etc. and the investment that is required to make communities "work". A decision by Government, of the means it wishes to pursue to capture planning gain would assist.

  2.6  The availability of public subsidy for housing is particularly important in a rural County such as Devon. The opportunity to capture land value through s106 mechanisms is greater in the larger urban areas where affordable housing can often be delivered without the need for public subsidy. In the market towns and rural areas the scale of development is lower, sites are smaller and the possibility of delivering appreciable levels of affordable housing is more dependant on public subsidy. It is to sites such as this that public subsidy should be steered.

  2.7  In summary:

    —  Devon supports a housing and planning framework that takes account of both the needs of the housing market and sustainability objectives—with a greater emphasis on understanding the nature of interventions required that housing market assessment suggests and more clarity regarding the use of market indicators alongside sustainable development objectives.

    —  Greater emphasis and guidance is required on the complementary role of housing and planning strategies at all levels.

    —  Clarity of purpose around the role of housing need assessment, local targeted housing need assessment and other more locally based survey work needs to be reflected in guidance and good practice if duplication of effort is to be avoided.

    —  Guidance needs to be sensitive to more localised market scenarios and reflect the cross boundary relationships that often exist between neighbouring authorities. Current proposals are too simplistic—and do not adequately address all forms of land supply [such as windfall sites].

    —  Timely provision of infrastructure is another facet of sustainable development—private developers cannot fund all requirements especially where strategic proposals are implemented.

    —  Opportunities to capture land value through s106 mechanisms is greater in urban areas, placing a greater reliance on public subsidy in more rural areas. It is to such sites that subsidy should be steered.

3.  LOCALLY INTEGRATED APPROACHES

  3.1  The reform of the planning system has given the Community Strategy a role in articulating a vision for the local authority—a significant step given the spatial emphasis to the new look development plan. The Devon Community Strategy[93] has three headline challenges: Not enough homes at affordable prices; making sure all our children and young people get the best start in life; and, climate change. The Devon Rural Strategy[94] contains an objective "enabling communities to plan and lead their own development to meet and integrate local physical, social and spiritual needs for a healthy and safe living environment" as well as the more specific objective of "developing measures aimed at providing an adequate and diverse stock of affordable homes."

  3.2  Work to address these issues is being taken forward in a number of ways. Measures to improve the supply of housing are embedded in Devon's Strategic Plan and are reflected as a cross cutting theme in the Local Area Agreement. A priority set out in Devon's LPSA2 agreement aims to reduce youth homelessness by 50%. Settlements have been prioritised for regeneration and community capacity building work, and the County Council plays a role in assisting local people to develop community and village plans. Ideas are being taken forward to capture the value of community assets of all types [land, labour, capital] through the establishment of community land trusts and community asset management. Extracts from the County Councils Regeneration Role and Action Plan[95] illustrating this approach are set out in Appendix 2. Regeneration in this context is seen as a process—an important element of which is the consensus gained through active participation in finding local solutions to local problems. Where there has been this type of approach, and it can be validated, considerable weight should be given to the proposals coming forward and more formal recognition [in Local Development Frameworks and development control decisions] given to the plans prepared.

  3.3  At the local level, success usually depends on speedy decisions by the relevant players and continuity of funding to realise longer term objectives. In the context of community development funding packages are usually dependant on partnership contributions; where the planning system delays implementation of a proposal, such funding commitment is difficult to sustain. Similarly, delayed planning consent can mean Housing Corporation funding is lost. Delays in decision making are not the fault of Local Authorities alone. Fast tracking affordable housing proposals through the appeal and "call in" procedures would help.

  3.4  In summary:

    —  The County Council supports an integrated approach, as evidenced by community approaches to regeneration and housing delivery.

    —  A more formal recognition in policy of the role played by community and village plans in bringing forward housing proposals would be welcomed.

    —  Greater certainty concerning the availability of public subsidy for rural housing, and fast tracking of planning appeals involving affordable housing would help.

4.  MONITORING OF HOUSING SUPPLY AND RELEASE OF LAND

  4.1  The key to a successful evidence base for developing housing policy and proposals lies in robust monitoring systems, consistently and coherently applied to underpin strategy and delivery at all levels in the system. An agreed national methodology for collecting and collating data is required, to a common timetable that correlates as far as possible with major reviews of Regional Spatial Strategy. The current work to define core output indicators for the monitoring of Local Development Frameworks should be extended to the housing field, to enable comparability of information interregionally, and between market areas. The establishment of a monitoring base will assist in decision making and help to distinguish between longer term and short term cyclical market conditions.

  4.2  Similar concerns surround the comparability and aggregation of studies at the regional and local level. Studies such as housing market assessment, land availability studies would benefit from methodology that includes clear definitions and outputs that have some commonality.

  4.3  In summary:

    —  National guidance should establish common methodology and frameworks/definitions for monitoring to allow for comparison between regional and local areas.

5.  NATIONAL POLICY AND ITS IMPACTS

  5.1  The situation in Devon, where the housing market is strong, places it in a similar position to the south east in terms of housing affordability and housing demand. However, as highlighted in section 1, the nature of the area is very different, with land use reflecting the historic importance of agriculture, resulting in the dispersed development pattern where services and facilities are largely centred on market and coastal towns.

  5.2  The opportunities for meeting housing demand are therefore different to the situation in the growth areas of the south east, where a close network of towns means a concentration of housing close to urban facilities and transport is easier to achieve. National policy preferences for urban concentration underplay the realities of life in rural counties where the need for affordable housing is high, yet the application of national policy through Regional Spatial Strategy restricts greenfield supply. Many of the rural households requiring affordable housing are already living and working in the countryside and are essential to the social and economic fabric of their communities. The emerging Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West, [96]in response to consultation, is proposing a development strategy that allows for greater sensitivity in dealing with development across the region, in response to sub regional requirements. The Assembly's concern about affordable housing supply is reflected in a resolution taken at its meeting on 21 October 2005 supporting the inclusion of proposals in Regional Spatial Strategy that could push the percentage of affordable housing on development sites to 60% where appropriate. Debate is continuing regarding the correct balance of development in the period to 2026 between urban and rural locations, with the County Council supportive of a development distribution that will permit some development of a suitable scale in key settlements in rural areas, against a longer term trajectory that seeks to move the proportion of new development in favour of urban locations.

  5.3  The mapping of housing market areas and their housing issues, on to this spatial pattern leads to some concerns. The definition of housing market areas, largely based on travel to work patterns, draws on the functional relationships between larger urban areas and their surrounding hinterlands. In Devon, the northern and north western part of the County is characterised by a more polycentric pattern of development, with housing market profiling suggesting the area is a loose collection of more localised sub markets. This characteristic is shared with neighbouring North Cornwall and is, no doubt, a function of remote rurality in locations without a dominant urban area. Demand for market housing across these areas is strong [Torridge, the most rural of Devon's districts, had the largest percentage population increase—13.2%—in Devon between the 1991 and 2001], pointing to a need to make sure that development in these very rural areas is of the right type. Housing market assessment methodology, and guidance relating to land supply, needs to offer guidance for these types of locations. In rural areas, the definition of lower site thresholds, above which affordable housing will be sought, may not always be helpful. A preferable test would be the viability of a site to deliver affordable housing, regardless of size.

  5.4  The planning system alone cannot re-balance the housing market, which is driven by the investment decisions of individuals. Further research is required to understand the possible financial and fiscal mechanisms that might impact positively on land supply and to review the impact of decisions across different sectors of government on the housing situation. The example of SIPP proposals and its potential impact on home ownership is a case in point.

  5.5  In summary:

    —  Although an area of high housing demand, the strategic spatial response in the south west needs to be more attuned to the dispersed settlement pattern than national policy promotes.

    —  Housing market assessment methodology needs to take account of remote rural areas with no obvious urban focus.

    —  There is a need for more research to understand the financial and fiscal measures that might impact on the market and to "rural proof" decisions across ministries that impact on rural housing.




89   Affordability and the Intermediate Housing Market: Local measures for all local authority areas in Great Britain-Steve Wilcox for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2005. Back

90   Devon to 2016: Devon Structure Plan Authorities [Devon County Council, Torbay Council, Plymouth City Council, Dartmoor National Park Authority], adopted October 2004. Back

91   Regional Planning Guidance for the South West [RPG10] September 2001. Back

92   Analysis of sub regional Housing Markets in the South West: DTZ Pieda Consulting for the SW Regional Housing Body, September 2004. Back

93   A Community Strategy for Devon: Devon Strategic Partnership 2004. Back

94   Devon Rural Strategy: Devon Strategic Partnership, July 2003. Back

95   Regeneration Role and Action Plan for Devon County Council: Devon County Council, December 2004. Back

96   See www.southwest-ra.gov.uk for the latest draft-available as Regional Assembly meeting papers for 21 October. Back


 
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