9a. HOUSING - Time to take action

(November 20, 2009)
PROVIDING the correct number of and mix of homes for Warminster’s population is almost as difficult as providing the optimum number of homes for the UK as a whole.
Britain’s population has been rising rapidly in the past decade as a result of immigration spurred on by a high rate of economic growth.
The Office for National Statistic says that, if the trend continues, we will have 70 million people in the country by 2028.
Since these predictions were made the British economic miracle has been shown to be nothing more than a mirage conjured up by politicians and enabled by peculiar circumstances in the world economy.
With our economy now revealed as a basket case far fewer people will want to come here but, despite this, we are still left with chronic housing problems that are likely to grow worse rather than better for demographic reasons.

Housing shortage
Locally there are examples of desperately ill elderly people deprived of suitably adapted accommodation simply because there isn’t enough to go round – a problem which will multiply as the population ages.
Young people are still priced out of the cheapest homes even if they try to rent rather than buy.

The Halifax house price index fell by a record 16 per cent in 2008 and further major falls are expected but there will always be plenty of people who will struggle to afford to buy a home here.
Traditionally wages are so low, this area’s other attributes makes it attractive to wealthier incomers and the number of new homes becoming available will fall as almost all of the developable land is used up.
The simple truth is that we need to build or convert more housing to meet the needs of these two disadvantaged groups and need to think long and hard about how this can be achieved in the current circumstances.
Between 1983 and 2007 right to buy legislation resulted in a net loss of social housing stock throughout the period.

Existing policy shot to pieces
Since the council stopped building its own stock the housing model used has been to force developers to allocate a certain percentage of any new development to ‘affordable’ housing.
In rural parts of Kennet District this percentage has been set at a crazy 50 per old chalkecent.
In times when house prices are plummeting and many large house builders are struggling to stay in business such a policy is no longer tenable.
It is stopping new developments from happening as council officials who are totally out of touch with the real world insist on a system designed for an economic boom the likes of which we will probably never see again.
The truth about these ‘developer contributions and percentages’ is that the money comes not from the developer but from the buyers of the open market price housing who pay a higher price than they otherwise would have done - thereby distorting the market.
But plummeting house prices mean there is no longer room for juicy developer contributions and affordable housing – so where do we go from here?
Look back to when we last had this problem in the late 1940s when the Government of the day encouraged council housing.
We must quickly go back to that system learning from the lessons and mistakes made in previous eras.
Levels of housing completions nationally have fallen back to levels seen in the 1930s.

new chalkeHere in Warminster we only have to look at the sites of the former Chalke’s garage in George Street and the old VW garage in Victoria Road to see its effects here. (See photos of Chalke's site where little has happened since demolition two years ago)
Both sites are earmarked for housing and both remain empty - possibly for years and possibly because the council insist on enforcing outmoded ideas.
Gibbs Yard in Boreham Road is also blighted. Housing officers have to have far more say over planning officers.
Council needs to take direct action
With the new Wiltshire Council there is hope that we can make some progress.
Unlike in other districts of Wiltshire tenants in the Salisbury area have thrice rejected, by substantial majorities, council bids to get them to move to a social landlord via a process known as large scale voluntary transfer (LSVT).
In most places LVST has sailed through because vested interests put out a barrage of favourable glossy propaganda, argued that the council did not have the funds to run them, and there was muted opposition.

But in Salisbury the opposition was able to put the facts clearly and powerfully and won the day each time.
This has left the Salisbury area with a still intact first class council housing service. Would tenants in North Wilts, Kennet and West Wilts have voted for LSVT if the were given the proper facts as in Salisbury? We doubt it.

The Salisbury council housing system be extended to cover the whole county as new council homes are built.
In normal times no government would allow this but these are not normal times and pump priming the economy through building homes that people will be able to live in will do much to revive the economy.

It would be far better than throwing billions at bankrupt banks or cutting VAT by a whisker.
A government minister has already announced that restrictions on local councils bidding for social housing grant are being removed.

(Margaret Beckett, Minister of housing quoted in The Guardian (Society) 7 Jan 2009).
If local authorities make a 'strong and sound case' then councils will get the green paul & donlight to once again build and manage homes that people need.
Now is the time for us to be imaginative and seize this opportunity.

In Warminster, Hillside along the Boreham Road, is already the subject of a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) bid to bring affordable housing.
House repossessions are a terrible thing.
Now is the time for the council to tell the government that they must be allowed to step in to buy suitable properties to add to the council stock.
There is a real opportuniy if we have the vision to use a combination of measures to encourage developers, housing societies, and the new council to meet the demand.
Pictured: Paul with his father Don, campaigning successfully for the PRC housing issue to be resolved 20 years ago,

Town housing - an area of opportunity
New housing also has a huge role to play in regeneration of run-down areas and will, for once, do a demonstrably better job than the market place,
We have all known that large northern cities have been in need of regeneration for decades.

The market solution has provided ten of thousands of small flats designed for property speculators rather than people.
Now they cannot be sold.
We don’t have that problem in Warminster but we feel that the centre of the town could benefit from development that includes housing to help improve vitality after 6pm.

Already Anchor Court  has shown what can be done.
Looking at current land use is it not time for the light industry that exists at Beech Avenue to be moved to Woodcock and the site used for 'social' housing instead.
And someone needs to urgently look at the opportunity to create a row of terraced houses and sort out the blot on the landscape that is the lane that leads up to Carsons Yard.
Just as North Row has seen some interesting re-development so we could create a South Row. Ridgeway Court has shown what can be done in this area.
Living above the shop must be aggressively promoted. The Three Horseshoes Mall is a bad example of how accommodation suitable for young people is largely unavailable.
There are tax advantages available to those who convert part of commercial property to provide accommodation.
If Dents is re-developed then it must be considered for suitable easily rentable housing for young people living above the store that is built there.
As we said at the beginning there is the ever increasing growth in the elderly needing more than care in the community. Warminster has Woodmead. It needs a second option outside the private sector. Should we ask the new council to look at the former hospital latterly known as the Beckford Centre as the answer?

These are difficult times but it is the housing sector which led us into economic depression and it will have to be the housing sector which leads us out of it.
This year (2009) the Government believes 300,000 homes are needed yet only 60,000 will be built.
With a huge housing shortage and thousands of building workers with nothing to do all we are asking for is for common sense to prevail.
The local authority has a huge role to play in this - but will the powers that be take heed and grasp the nettle?


Promoted and published by Steve Dancey of 21 Newport, Warminster, and Paul Macdonald, of 144 Boreham Field, Warminster.

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