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'Affordable' Housing

Affordable HousingThis piece is likely to present an unpopular view, but we believe it is a view that needs airing.  It is about a plan to change the nature - and thus the character - of this area to its detriment. In this process, our emotions have been very skilfully manipulated, and mostly, we haven't even noticed what's really going on.

Fylde's towns and villages, and in particular Lytham and St Anne's are perceived as being a 'nice' place to live.

Mostly crime free, relatively clean, rich in old fashioned courtesy and traditional values. Polite motorists who stop at zebra crossings even before pedestrians start across, people who tip their hats to ladies, and who hold doors open for others. St Annes is an upmarket area that causes local radio presenters to affect a faux 'posh' accent as they refer to it as "Saint Arnes"

If you think about it, all these qualities all come down to the nature and behaviour of the people who choose to live here.

And choosing to live here is what many people do.

That makes the area desirable, which in turn means that to enjoy this sort of lifestyle; people are prepared to pay over the odds to beat off the competition. This applies not only to big, expensive properties, but to terraces and small apartments as well.

So irrespective of the socio-economic group they occupy, on a broad view, the sort of people who choose to live here are usually of above average wealth for that group, either in terms of income or accumulated capital.

The people are the reason this area is like it is.

So anything that sets out to deliberately change the mix of people will, if it succeeds, change the character of the area.

That's exactly what the 'Affordable Housing' scheme set out to do.

It was hatched by the former Chief Executive Ken Lee, who wanted Fylde to have a more 'balanced' population.

As one of his senior colleagues told us at the time, "He wants to make St Anne's like Skelmersdale. He can't understand why people in St Anne's aren't queuing up to go to live in Skelmersdale"

He skilfully manipulated information and reports, making Councillors believe the most serious problem facing Fylde was the lack of 'Affordable Housing'

This became the clarion call around which the plan to change Fylde took shape.

So how did it come about?

Well, first, we need to be clear about some of the terms we will use.

We begin with "affordable housing." What does this mean to you?

Most of the people we have asked thought it meant lower priced, (typically smaller), homes that young couples just starting on the housing ladder could afford to buy.

But to the housing and planning experts, it doesn't mean that at all. That's a description of what they call "Low Cost Housing"

No, "Affordable Housing" means housing that is subsidised, generally from the public purse (which usually means taxation of one sort or another).

Probably the best known example of Affordable Housing is the 'Council House', where houses were built and let to needy families at a less than economic rent, with the difference being met from taxation.

These days however, there are virtually no Council Houses. Thy have almost all been transferred from Councils to Housing Associations or Registered Social Landlords, or sold off under the "Right To Buy" legislation.

These new housing organisations act much as the old Council would have done, but without having the democratic accountability of directly elected councillors making detailed decisions.

So subsidised rental houses make up a good part of 'Affordable Housing'.

But there are also more sophisticated Affordable Housing schemes these days.

These include 'Shared Equity' schemes where, typically, the buyer or buyers stump up some capital for a deposit, and get a mortgage for half the cost of the house.

The remaining half is paid for by (and this half of the property continues to be owned by) a QUANGO such as a Housing Association or Registered Social Landlord.

Typically, if the householder wants to move, half of the eventual sale price goes back to the Housing Association or RSL.

In some cases the householder will pay a rent on the part they don't own as well as paying their half mortgage.

Another option is a halfway house (sorry!) between normal private rentals and wholly subsidised rents. Here the rent charged for the property is neither the full market rent, nor the completely subsidised rent.

Yet another option is Discounted Sale, which subsidises the purchase price of a property for selected buyers.

However, in all of these, the key feature is that all Affordable Housing schemes have some element of public originating subsidy in either their rental or purchase price.

The Registered Social Landlord receives the money for subsidies from the Housing Corporation, who receive it from Government, who receive it from our taxes.

This is why we prefer the term 'Subsidised Housing'

That's the definitions part mostly done.

So what's the fuss about you might ask? Why is counterbalance so interested?

The answer is that a disgraceful social engineering plan was hatched at the turn of the Millennium to intentionally change the very nature of his area, but it was cleverly wrapped up in euphemistic language using terms such as 'Affordable Housing' in order (very successfully, it appears) to hide the real intent.

Information was - in our view - misapplied, or at least misinterpreted, in order to justify making huge and fundamental changes to Fylde's housing stock.

It began in earnest in the summer of 2002 with a 'Housing Need Survey' that the former Chief Executive persuaded the Council to undertake.

A company called Fordham Research undertook this study partly, at least, to assess the state of repair of houses throughout the Fylde.

This was how it was sold to Councillors.

After being updated with figures from the 2001 census, it showed that Fylde had:

  • 80% Owner occupied houses
  • 7% Social Rented Houses
  • 13% Private Rented

Our owner occupied property was much higher than either the north-west or national average (which was 69%) and social rented much lower than the 20% or so it was elsewhere.

This 'imbalance' horrified the former Chief Executive.

He urged Fordham onward with their work.

Using averaged national and local data about wage rates, property prices and the proportion of income that 'ought' to be spent on housing costs, in Spring 2004 they concluded that Fylde had a 'need' for 420 extra affordable dwellings per year

Their report also showed:

  • The highest need was in Lytham/St Annes.
  • Low-cost market housing (i.e. cheaper, smaller houses) could not meet any housing need.
  • Only 3% of people wanted shared ownership.
  • The overriding need was for social rented housing (found to be 97% of identified need).
  • There was also a need for dwellings catering for people with special needs (e.g. disabilities and the frail elderly).
This may well have been what the consultants found, but as their expert said at a public enquiry shortly afterwards, the survey was not a policy document and it did not advocate the construction of 420 new affordable homes each year.

The figure was intended to allow Fylde to be benchmarked against other districts in the UK.

It did not mean this amount of houses needed to be built.

In fact at that same public enquiry, he was reported to have said that the practical solution was actually trivial, only between one and ten percent of that figure, i.e. only a maximum of 42 'Affordable (subsidised) Houses' were actually needed each year.

You would have thought Councillors might have spotted something was wrong when the Joint Lancashire Structure Plan 2001-2016 showed an annual need for only 155 dwellings OF ALL TYPES in Fylde Borough, and the Council itself was only allowing the building of an annual average of 254 dwellings per year.

The statement that they needed 420 'Affordable Houses' a year was plainly preposterous.

But driven from the very top, no one seriously challenged it, and the former Chief Executive and some of his conscripted lieutenants now adopted this 420 houses as their baseline.

They had the figures incorporated into the Local Plan. This made them even more 'respectable'

To redress the 'problems', it was decided that in future, what might otherwise be called private housing developments would only be allowed if they provided:

  • Not more than 40% normal market value housing
  • at least 58% Social Rented Housing, and
  • 2% shared equity housing.

Now just stop for a moment here Dear Reader and reflect on the impact of this decision.

Think of Cypress Point with almost 60% of its properties built for households in need of subsidy, and 97% of them as social rented houses.

Whether or not you like Cypress Point as it is now, if this policy had been in force at the time, Cypress Point would be a very different place now, and a good part of Lytham St Anne's would have a different character.

You will see that if it had succeeded, the effect of this rule would have started to change the make-up of the population of Lytham St Anne's (which was supposed to be the area with the worst 'problem').

We believe it was only a problem in the mind of a Chief Executive who thought the area too comfortable and privileged and that it needed to be changed into a more 'balanced' community.

He hoodwinked senior politicians to adopt his plans.

Using the misinterpreted Survey of Need results, he persuaded the Council to believe that "Providing additional affordable housing is the number one housing priority in Fylde"

John Coombes' personal introduction to the Housing Policy - which Lee also set in train - includes the following:

"Many people who already live here understandably want to ensure that the history and unique qualities of the area are maintained. The Council is supportive of this sentiment and needs to use its influence to promote a balanced and varied housing market which is able to cope with the social and lifestyle changes which all communities are facing."

The only thing wrong here is the use of the words "and needs to use its influence"

It would have been more truthful to say "but needs to use its influence"

Clearly that is what is meant.

However, with one notable exception, it didn't work - mostly because developers laughed at the idea and sat on their land banks, watching the land value appreciate as house prices went even higher (and made the existing houses even less affordable).

So in May last year the Council revised its development rules. They employed a new consultant whose data conveniently suggested a new proportion for future developments. These were:

  • Not more than 40% normal market value housing (as before)
  • at least 30% Social Rented Housing (previously 58%), and
  • 30% shared equity (previously 2%)

Quite how in just four years, the proportions of social rented and shared equity can justify an absolutely huge change like this, we have no idea.

Unless, of course, the figures are doing nothing more than spuriously attempting to legitimise something that is factually indefensible.

It remains to be seen whether these proportions will work or not.

We hope they do not, because these again will fundamentally change the nature of our community.

A side effect of the policy Fylde adopted has been the spawning of a new housing and homelessness department with its consequent expenditure and overheads that are in our view wholly inappropriate for the scale of the ACTUAL, rather than the illusory, problem.

Another side-effect was that because of the heightened emphasis paid to homelessness within the policy, between 2002 and 2004, the number of people presenting themselves as being homeless in Fylde increased by 800% (yes, that was eight hundred percent) over two years, (from 24 people a year to 219 people a year).

Now at this point, we could, and probably should, go on to explain how 'affordability' is calculated in order to develop the subsidies for rentals or mortgages, but that will have to be another article if anyone is interested enough to ask for it. Suffice to say we have problems agreeing with some of the assumptions.

So to conclude.

The basis for calculating the number of 'Affordable Houses' that need to be built in Fylde is fundamentally flawed, and so is the policy that flows from it.

The initial aim was to change the character of the area, but since Lee's departure, this aim has become lost in the mists of time as the 'Affordable Housing' juggernaught continues to roll and absorb money.

The change that will be wrought to Fylde, if this misguided policy succeeds, will now mostly be nothing more than an unavoidable by-product of the policy that is steamrollering along almost out of control.

Lee and his believers were very successful in tightly weaving the (entirely understandable) desires of parents and grandparents in Fylde (to have their offspring able to afford a house here) into their euphemistic call to make 'Affordable Housing' a top priority.

But whether those parents and grandparents expect their offspring to be housed in a greatly increased number of social rented (council type houses) where the rents are subsidised by taxes paid by the rest of us is entirely another matter.

We suspect they would rather have them able to afford to buy starter homes that are lower cost properties, without needing to feel they are being subsidised by other people.

So whilst there will always be people who need help from time to time with social housing, we think - because people's circumstances are all different - that it would be better not to buck the market (and especially the housing market) - a process that will always ends in tears - but to offer financial help such as grants, loans or subsidies that might be thought necessary and appropriate to individuals in order for them to become local residents.

But this must be on a scale commensurate with practical need, not theoretical assumptions of need; nor, indeed, a plan to engineer a different social composition for Fylde's population.

Finally, we hope this piece makes people stop and think about the changes that hundreds of 'Affordable Houses' would make to Fylde. Because if people do stop and think, they will realise if it were to happen, it might well destroy the very reason they chose to live here in the first place.

The housing policy has just been reviewed by the Council, and an interim new policy is about to be opened for public consultation before it is set for another period of six or whatever years.

We hope our readers will let Fylde Council know their views.

Dated:  7 December 2007


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