A home of our own is a dream that most of us aspire to, and for many people of my generation it’s a dream that has come true. If you are approaching middle-age (from either direction), you will quite likely be living in a home you have bought, looking forward to paying off your mortgage and living comfortably for the rest of your life.
In Rochford District, nearly 38% of households own their homes outright, with 48% owning with a mortgage or other loan – both figures substantially higher than the rest of England. The remaining 14% of us rent our homes – from the local authority, from housing associations or from private landlords.
So the picture looks quite rosy for households in Rochford District. Nearly 86% of households are owner-occupied, and nearly 80% of us go off to work every day, leaving at home the remaining 20% of retired people, students and people looking for work.
There is a problem, however. I have been contacted several times recently by people who would like to buy a house, and in some cases by parents who really would like their offspring to fly the nest. But houses are so expensive that many new buyers would simply not be able to afford the mortgage repayments.
A recent report suggests that only a third of today’s ten-year-olds will be able to afford to buy a house when they grow up. There are initiatives to help key workers (police, teachers and so on) buy houses in or near the area where they work. This is a welcome development, but as so often happens, it’s a case of too little too late. It also does nothing for those who are not counted as key workers, but who contribute to the local economy and would like to continue to live in this part of Essex where they were brought up.
This is one of those problems that has to be looked at from many angles. You can’t simple say ‘Build more houses’ – where would we put them? We can already see the results of careless thinking in the west of Rayleigh, where the local Conservatives allocated land for housing without a thought for the community resources that would be needed – schools, doctors’ surgeries, leisure facilities, roads and so on. We are expecting a shortage of secondary school places in five years’ time.
The green belt is a precious resource. It is meant to check the sprawl of large built-up areas, and to prevent neighbouring settlements from merging. There is also a growing awareness that green spaces are worth protecting in their own right – I’m thinking of the Roach Valley in particular.
Current government plans to reduce local accountability for the green belt are alarming. This is a dual threat – to the countryside we cherish, and to the principle that local people should have a say in their own area.
The Liberal Democrats have been focusing on two major ideas – the use of so-called ‘brownfield’ sites, and the further development of affordable homes.
An area the size of 28,000 football pitches is lying derelict across England. In the Eastern Region, there are 182 derelict sites, covering 2,310 hectares, equivalent to 1.7% of our urban areas. We could build 60,000 new homes on those sites without taking an inch from the green belt.
While new developments eat away at our diminishing green spaces, huge areas of the country are currently derelict and crying out for redevelopment.
One of the reasons for this is that the current VAT regime encourages developers to build on new sites (VAT 5%) and ignore the renovation potential of existing buildings (VAT 17.5%). We would end this bizarre and perverse incentive by equalising the VAT rates on new build and renovating buildings.
We would also provide local authorities with more power to limit the growth of second homes. Does it really make sense, when housing is in such short supply, to encourage home-owners to buy second homes? We would also like to see empty homes brought back into use – there are 180,000 houses standing empty across London and the South East.
Our second focus aims to provide 100,000 affordable dwellings through a new Mutual Homes scheme, which would help people make the transition from renting to buying. Mutual homes would offer people the opportunity to build up an equity stake in a home gradually, investing only as much as they can afford.
In the long term, we should be looking at how we can control the factors which have brought us to the unwelcome position we are in. We could think, for instance, about moving government departments out of London. Many people would like to see big projects like the Millennium Dome located in parts of the country where housing is plentiful and cheap.
In the meantime, we have a simple ambition: a decent home for everyone at a price within their means.