Affordable houses in Cornwall: what it means and changes afoot

With the average house price in Cornwall now around £278,000 the ambition of owning your own home in Cornwall is not only out of reach for many people on but pretty much impossible.

To help combat this, many new developments of homes will have to have a portion of properties classed as “affordable”.

It was a topic that was brought to the fore again only recently, when some Cornwall councillors claimed that proposed changes to the country’s planning laws would see less affordable homes being built.

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But what is an “affordable” home – and is it a realistic term?

There are a variety of homes which are classed as affordable, which are suited to the different circumstances of those who need them.

These are the main types of affordable housing:

  • Homes sold at below market rate – generally sold at 80 per cent of their open market value.
  • Shared ownership – homes which are paid for with a mix of a mortgage and rent and offering residents a chance to buy outright.
  • Affordable rent – homes which are rented at 80 per cent of the open market rate.
  • Social housing – rental properties provided through Cornwall Council, via Cornwall Housing, or housing associations.

Affordable housing was one of the main priorities for Cornwall Council when the unitary authority was created in 2009.

More than a decade later it continues to be a top priority and the council has been named as the best authority in the country for delivering affordable homes for the last two years.

The council’s capital programme currently includes £440million to be spent on new and improved housing, including affordable housing for people in Cornwall.

However there is also a need to rely on developers to build affordable housing as part of wider developments.

Under legal agreements developers are required to build affordable homes – usually around 30 per cent – in return for gaining planning permission for developments.

This has helped to provide more affordable homes but also increases the level of open market homes which can be out of reach of those who need homes the most.

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Despite these efforts to provide affordable housing there are some who consider that there are no homes which are ‘truly affordable’ in Cornwall and that there is still a gap between the means of people in the Duchy and the availability of homes.

Andrew Mitchell is the Cabinet member for housing at Cornwall Council who has been fighting to get as much affordable housing as possible delivered in Cornwall.

He said: “Affordable here in Cornwall, we put the definition of being 80 per cent of open market price – that is for rent or buy.

“Cornwall Housing Limited, they provide social housing with the rent around 55 to 60 per cent of open market rates. We also have a variety of housing associations who the council works with which provide affordable housing.

“They have helped the council be number one in the delivery of affordable homes for two years running.

“We have shared ownership where you buy 25 per cent of the property and pay rent on the rest, although the government is looking to lower that starting point which I welcome.

“Trying to rent and save a deposit is really hard and most people can only do it with the help of the bank of mum and dad.”

But the St Ives councillor admitted that there was a need to look again at what is classed as affordable and whether what is being provided is meeting the needs of Cornwall.

“What we are doing is looking at the definition of affordable – if you are paying more than a third of your salary on rent then it is really difficult. We are looking at whether we can bring in a product that is not based on the value of the house but on your income and ability to pay.

“With house prices in Cornwall being so expensive that even affordable homes exclude so many people we need to look at this again.”

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Cllr Mitchell said that in the remaining months of the current administration of Cornwall Council he wanted to start the ball rolling on getting more affordable homes in place which are truly affordable.

At a meeting of full council this week one councillor questioned whether there were any homes which could really be considered to be affordable in Cornwall.

The Cabinet member said: “I said at full council this week, in response to what Barry Jordan (Cornwall councillor for Tintagel) said, and as many councillors have said, affordable for a lot of people here is not affordable.

“In the last eight months of this council I want to do a lot of groundwork so that we can start to get those homes provided.

“Here in Cornwall the European Union has acknowledged that we are one of the poorest regions in the EU and that is reflected in people’s lifestyles. Providing a home that is cheaper to rent and run is important to help people.

“I really do dread that millions of people in the UK and a high percentage of people at home here in Cornwall are going to face such financial difficulty due to Covid-19 – it makes it even more incumbent that Cornwall Council looks at what is affordable.

“It is something that got me into politics 27 years ago – the mismatch in property prices here in St Ives and wage levels. Friends of mine who got onto the housing ladder had to move out of St Ives to areas elsewhere in Cornwall where properties were more affordable – I thought that was so wrong.

“Even being able to rent a property now in the private sector is so hard as the rent levels are so astronomical.

“We should work to live, not live to work. Having disposable income at the end of the month is something that makes it all worthwhile.”

Cllr Mitchell said that housing organisations such as Shelter have stated that people should not be paying more than a third of their income on housing costs and he said it was something he wanted to ensure people would not have to do in Cornwall.

He said: “Even if it means we build a development and we have two homes next door to each other which are being charged different rates of rent to the families living in them – that might be controversial but it is the kind of measure we need to have to ensure that housing is accessible to all. It is something we have really got to try and grasp.”

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He said that housing associations in Cornwall “do a fantastic job” in helping to deliver and provide affordable housing but said that Cornwall Council also had to play a bigger role.

And the St Ives councillor accepted that if rent and purchase rates were lowered it could mean that less homes would be delivered, but said that would be outweighed by making them more affordable for those who need housing the most.

He said that while Cornwall Council did currently use the 80 per cent level for affordable homes in an ideal world it would be more like 65 per cent or 55 per cent.

Cllr Mitchell said: “We currently have one in three homes built in Cornwall being affordable – I want to improve on that.”

He said that the Government decision to remove the borrowing cap from councils’ housing revenue accounts meant that authorities could start building homes again.

“I think it is great that the council has stepped in to build homes directly again. I don’t want to just intervene in the housing market, I want to disrupt it, I want to really shake it up. It is not working.”

He added that the council moving into building homes would also help to start to offset the social housing which has been lost through the right to buy scheme which started in the 1980s.

Cllr Mitchell said that at the start there were as many as 3,500 homes a year being purchased and taken out of the housing stock in Cornwall.

And he said that even now around 50 to 60 homes a year are sold under the right to buy scheme.

One of the big issues with affordable housing is making sure that they go to local people and those who need them most.

Cllr Mitchell said that he could provide assurance that every affordable house built in Cornwall was going to someone who is local.

He said that a decision to change the requirements to qualify for the council’s Homechoice register which allocates homes had been brought in to strengthen this.

Previously applicants had to prove a one-year connection to the area where they wanted to live but this has been extended to three years.

There had been discussions about extending it further to five or even ten years but it was decided that three years was sufficient.

However this had an unintended side effect in that it meant that a lot of the people in the most need – classed as being in bands A, B or C – were losing out to others in lower need who had a stronger local connection.

There are currently around 12,000 families in Cornwall on the Homechoice register showing the extent of the need for affordable homes.

Of course there are always rumours that homes being built in Cornwall are being sold off to local councils elsewhere to house people – walk past any building estate in Cornwall and you are likely to hear someone suggest that the homes are being built for Manchester or Birmingham City Council.

Cllr Mitchell, who has had to dispel this urban myth multiple times over a long period of time, says that it is still a myth.

He said: “If anybody hears Dave down the pub saying that ‘those ones are being built for Birmingham City Council’ come and see me and I will show you that it simply isn’t true.

“With all due respect they couldn’t afford it anyway and why would they want to do that?

“If anybody reading this believes we are providing homes for anybody not here in Cornwall please write to me and I will give you the full planning history and who is paying for it.”