Article - Housing

I saw recently, with some delight, that the Garmans Field Community Land Trust in Lyme Regis had been nominated for the affordable housing scheme of the year award. 

This is a justified tribute to the extremely hard work that has been put into establishing the community land trust in question. But it is also something of wider significance. 

A couple of decades ago, no one had heard of community land trusts. Now they are springing up everywhere. 

I have been involved, one way or another, in a number of these endeavours, and I am absolutely persuaded that they constitute an important part of the answer to the vexed question of how we should provide homes for our people over the next half century or so. 

As everyone knows, house prices in many parts of southern England have moved ridiculously out of line with earnings, making it difficult for many people to afford to rent privately and even more difficult for people to afford to buy a home of their own. 

It will inevitably take a very long time to cure this problem. Even if we succeed in increasing the rate of house building by about 50% it will take decades for house prices to be more balanced with incomes. No sensible government would want to precipitate a massive recession by building homes so fast that there was a sudden crash in house prices. The only sensible path is to build just enough new homes so that prices rise less fast than incomes. That way, very gradually and without causing a crash, the ratio between house prices and incomes will become more reasonable. 

But this leaves us facing the prospect of several decades, during which open-market housing will continue to be too expensive for many people. 

That is why all political parties are at present supporting the idea of expanding the supply of “affordable housing”. 

Nowadays, housing associations are increasingly imaginative. As well as offering highly subsidised rents, they offer intermediate solutions like partially subsidised rents and opportunities for shared ownership. 

We will need a ready supply of each of these forms of affordable housing over the next few decades. 

But there is a remaining, structural problem, especially in rural areas like ours. When more houses are built in a particular rural town or village, there is in general no guarantee that they will be bought or rented (or partly bought or partly rented) by people already living in that town or village, or even by people nearby. So young families see housing going up in their area but find that people from elsewhere get into it. 

This is where community land trusts come in. They enable a mixture of different types of housing to be built in a particular location, but on the basis that any of the housing which is being subsidised in order to make it affordable for locals, is actually offered to locals in preference to anybody else. 

What’s more, community land trusts can arrange for those locals, if they have bought some or all of their home by the time they leave it, to sell it back to the Trust, so that it can be offered once again to local people. 

I think a lot of the objections that are sometimes raised to new housing developments in sensitive sites can be reduced, or even eliminated altogether, through this simple device.