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New commission to tackle housing crisis

Wednesday, 12 July 2023 11:13

By Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter @OliHepy

Devon houses (Image: Geograph)

Group to hear evidence over next year

A new group has been set up to tackle Devon’s housing crisis and make recommendations to the government.

The Devon Housing Commission, which includes experts, councillors, and parliamentarians from across the county, will take evidence from communities over the next year.

Established by the Devon Housing Task Force, a partnership between the county’s local authorities and backed by the University of Exeter, it will develop recommendations to address “broken housing markets across Devon.”

The county council declared a housing crisis in 2021, with a lack of rental properties thought to be preventing key workers moving to the area and local people moving elsewhere due to being priced out of the properties available to rent or buy.

It comes as Devon’s local councils recently voted to adopt new powers from the government, expected to come into force next year, which will allow them to double council tax for empty and second homes.

A major cause of the long-term rental shortage is believed to be owners converting properties into short-term holiday lets, particularly in coastal and tourist areas.

Last autumn, North Devon councillors were told at least 435 homes in the district had been changed from permanent residential use to holiday lets in the three years prior, but the figure was likely to be even higher and a “major problem.”

They heard second homes and holiday lets make up more than a quarter of all homes in Instow, West Down, Countisbury, Trentishoe and Martinhoe, while in Mortenhoe (47 per cent) and Georgeham (45 per cent) the proportion is almost half.

Those behind the commission say the shortage of appropriate homes is having an impact on people’s health and the economy. Residents affected will be allowed to have their say, which will inform the group’s representations to government.

It will be chaired by Lord Richard Best, an expert in housing issues, and managed by Matthew Dodd from the University of Exeter.

The eleven commissioners include the Earl of Devon, Charles Courtenay, who owns Powerderham Castle, Devon County Council leader John Hart (Conservative), North Devon Lib Dem MP Selaine Saxby, Jaqueline Starr, incoming chair of LiveWest Housing Association, Torbay Council leader Dave Thomas (Conservative), and Karime Hassan, former Exeter City Council CEO.

Lord Best said: “By bringing together those with a major role across the county the commission will be a powerful voice for the importance of good quality housing for health and the economy.

“The commission will allow us to fully understand the origins of current pressures and look for innovative solutions from collective local action or significant policy change.”

Issues likely to be examined include housing supply, homelessness, housing affordability, integrating housing with health and care, the impact of short-term letting, student housing, and second homes.

The commission will also look at how to deliver affordable housing in rural communities while protecting the environment.

Cllr Hart, who also chairs the Team Devon partnership, said: “Devon is in the midst of a serious housing crisis with a real shortage of homes to let and high prices for local people who want to buy a home.

“We must do all we can to enable local people to live and work in their local communities and be close to their families and friends if they want to.

“The shortage and high cost of housing is also having a real impact on the ability of businesses, social care and organisations like the NHS to recruit staff and that has a serious effect on our economy and our capacity to look after our people.”

But his opposite number at Devon County Council, Julian Brazil (Lib Dem), also the leader of South Hams District Council, says it’s “worrying there is little or no representation from district councils.”

His Conservative predecessor at South Hams, Judy Pearce, is one of the commissioners, though no current district council leader is on the panel. Devon County Council, Plymouth City Council and Torbay Council are all represented.

“My hope is they will produce the radical ideas we need,” Cllr Brazil added. “Right to buy has got to go and affordability should be linked to local wages not open market values.

“The market has completely failed to solve our housing issues. Volume house builders should be nationalised. My fear is they will just confirm what we know already and tell us we’ve got a housing crisis.”

Meanwhile, Exeter City Council leader Phil Bialyk (Labour) said: “I very much welcome the work of the housing commission. Everyone knows that we have a big housing shortage in Devon and this needs to be addressed urgently if we are to create the affordable homes that people are so badly in need of.

“Housing is a key priority for Exeter City Council, and we are delighted to be working in partnership with others to help ensure the commission becomes a powerful voice on the importance of good quality housing.”

Devon residents and organisations can have their say on issues related to housing by responding to a call for evidence survey at: https://forms.office.com/pages/responsepage.aspx?id=d10qkZj77k6vMhM02PBKU2cnuF1btL5Iv0QP3QcdSoVUNEFWVUxSQVFNTktOQUNRWUMzMDY2WTFaNS4u

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