John Hocking, the executive director of the York-based Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, looks at the crisis being created by the city’s rising house prices.
Earlier this year, the City of York Council received a rap over the knuckles from the Government’s planning inspector over the inadequacy of its plans for future housing provision.
With that, we were sent back to square one in the development plan game. York Housing Week was established to start a debate by asking: ‘‘What next?’’ York is a good place to live. Employment is rising and the two universities are expanding along with the city’s population, the third-fastest growth rate in England.
Our problem is that with growth has come a staggering increase in house prices.
In January 1997, the average price of a property in York was £80,000. By October this year it was £202,000. Needless to say, average wages have effectively flatlined during this period, hovering around £22,000, with social tenants earning an average salary of below £12,000.
In our northern mini-growth bubble, those who would be expecting to buy are seeing their mortgage deposit pot leached away into rising private rents, while watching the buy-to-let market snapping up low-cost housing and the council’s waiting list is growing.
Meanwhile, contented residents are not prepared to suffer anyone else living near them.
Any planning application is strongly contested, ignoring desperate housing need. Even where need is acknowledged, residents want new housing built elsewhere on that mythical land of “brown fields”.
Developments already on these sites are stalled, awaiting nervous investors to commit.
The voices you don’t hear are those struggling to keep a roof over their heads, or those without a home. They are always absent, their case having to be made by troublesome academics, housing professionals and a few worried councillors.
York’s Housing Week was primarily about listening and sharing ideas, centred around a statement from one of the small builders who have been running an enthusiastic campaign against the council’s affordable housing programme. “If local people can’t afford what I build, does it matter?”
A local landlord added a supplementary question: “Why don’t we build low-cost housing like prefabs for those on low income?”
Should we treat housing like any other consumer good, where you get what you can afford?
Does it matter if local people are forced out of their communities because of rising housing costs?
Does it matter that the pressure on the 12,000 stock of social housing is ramped up by growing waiting lists feeding the call for the more efficient use of stock?
The council estimates that York residents will lose £2.9 million a year through the impact of welfare reform, money spent on debt, downsizing and destitution. The first emergency food service in the city was set up last month.
Does it matter if those on low incomes can only be offered lower-standard housing?
There are rumours that senior ministers have been surprised at the high standard of social housing.
For me these are the important questions that we have to answer. In York, every year we are failing to get anywhere near building the homes required, let alone meet our target for affordable homes.
The council has launched a “Get York building” campaign. Bad news for the nimbys, but this could also spell bad news for affordability, as requirements to develop social housing are eased and housing associations look at York’s high values and step into the private rented sector market to support their work.
At the end, I am left wondering whether our city – which once mirrored the average population profile of England – is slowly becoming a haven for the well- heeled, a Winchester of the north, expelling its low income and working population to less desirable, cheaper areas of Yorkshire, forcing them into a decreasing pool of social rented homes or low standard private rented housing.
My question for you is: Does this matter?