While Brexit is dominating the headlines, housing is undoubtedly one of the biggest single issues the Government and country faces.
We are in the midst of a multi-layered housing crisis.
It is a crisis of affordability, with starter homes in North Essex now costing up to ten times average earnings. It is also a crisis of quality, with a system that allows poor quality, poorly designed homes to be built.
It is an issue that cuts across national politics. The Conservatives have promised 300,000 new homes, Lib Dems are calling for 300,000 by 2020 and Labour are promising one million homes over the next ten years.
All the parties have rightly recognised the provision of homes is the catalyst for tackling inequality. This is no truer than in Essex where too many of our young people are unable to get on the housing ladder. In Colchester alone we have over 4,800 households on the housing register while across North Essex that number doubles.
This is impacting our prosperity. Areas like North Essex should be thriving but it is actually underperforming economically. Talk to some of the big employers in the area – the university, our hospitals or schools – and the retention of skilled workers in the local area is a big issue.
However, on the flip side – we have a cultural issue with housing. We generally accept housing is needed but for many it is as long as it is built nowhere near us.
The current planning system sees housing-led development added on to the edge of towns or villages giving a perception of over-development with a big impact on services and infrastructure.
We can all point to examples where homes have been added on to a village bringing more traffic and congestion, but not a new school, new road, new doctors’ surgery or leisure centre. All they do is just add more strain to the services already there.
New housing is generally purchased by people living in the local area – evidence informs us that over 70% of the moves in the wider North Essex area (Colchester, Braintree and Tendring plus Chelmsford) are by local people
However, the market is not working for those who need it the most.
That is why we see the principles of the Garden Communities as a potential long-term solution. Creating a stand-alone development at a scale that enables us to pay for the social infrastructure needed for it to work, is undoubtedly a better approach than tagging more homes on to communities or the ongoing sprawl of our towns.
Through a public-sector led approach with the collective of councils taking a proactive role in how they are developed we can ensure that infrastructure comes first, as well as controlling the speed of build, the design, and the types of home, which offers a real opportunity.
The North Essex Garden Communities proposal will see at least 30% of the properties being built as affordable homes. But they can deliver even more benefits through creating a whole range of different homes from social housing to rent-controlled properties, key worker housing and opportunities for self-build homes.
We can look at working with housing associations in different ways, create a range of different business and commercial spaces, cultural, health and leisure facilities all underpinned with an infrastructure led approach. This is possible because the councils, taking the role of the master-developer, are not working to the same model as the developers who must ensure a certain level of profit for their shareholders.
Of course this could bring a wealth of other benefits. Imagine it the homes are built to a set of principles based on healthy living, community stewardship, abundant green spaces, reduced reliance on cars through investing in walking and cycling networks and putting in place a top-notch public transport system that enables people to move about quickly and cheaply.
This will require funding from the councils and the continued backing of the County Council. It will need funding from Government, and it will also need to look at using an approach known as ‘land-value capture’ – effectively capturing the increase in land value when it is built on and pumping it back into the community.
Of course, these developments wouldn’t be built for many years, it is very much a long-term approach. The talk of 43,000 homes in North Essex is understandably scary and it is important local people and businesses have the opportunity to shape what is a project still in its infancy.
The reality is that we need to find space for the 43,000 homes in North Essex over the coming decades. If we don’t take the Garden Communities approach these would need to be delivered in the usual scattered way.
What we now have is the opportunity to set the standard for how new housing should be delivered – focussing on the needs and requirements of local people and businesses rather than what is defined by developers. We can do things differently, so let’s grasp this opportunity.
Cllr Tim Young, Portfolio Holder for Business and Culture and Deputy Leader of Colchester Borough Council