The challenge of delivering affordable housing in the South West

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by Dannielle Sinnett, Hannah Hickman, Katie McClymont, Stephen Hall, Cat Loveday, Jessica Lamond and Rebecca Windemer

We were commissioned by Homes for the South West, a consortium of housing associations, to examine the factors affecting housing affordability in the region and provide an estimate of future housing needs. To do this, we drew on Government data, a survey of local authorities, interviews with housing associations, local authorities and private developers, and a review of planning policies in the region.

Mulberry Park, a new development by Curo in Bath (credit Andrew Sykes and Curo)

How affordable is housing in the South West?

The South West faces acute problems of housing affordability. The region is conspicuously less affordable than England as a whole, and the North and Midlands in particular. In 2021, median house prices were approximately ten times greater than the median earnings. These inter-regional disparities are also becoming progressively more pronounced; in 1997 house prices were around four times greater than earnings.

Three quarters of local authority areas have affordability ratios (the ratio between house price and individual earnings) higher than that for England as a whole, and all have affordability ratios higher than those for the North of England. There is also substantial diversity in affordability ratios within local authority areas in the South West. The ten least affordable neighbourhoods in the region have median house prices more than 28 times median earnings. Even in the most affordable neighbourhoods median house prices are still more than three times median earnings.

Which factors impact housing affordability?

Property prices in the South West are markedly higher than England as a whole, and have risen nearly fourfold – faster than the national average rate of increase – in the past 25 years. However, the region has lower than average earnings, which have failed to keep up with house price increases. This has significant implications for local people, especially younger households or first-time buyers.

House prices are often higher in places with a high environmental quality and good access to local amenities and services. We found that, within a local authority area, neighbourhoods closer to the coastline are less affordable, as are those in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. In general, more rural places are less affordable than towns and cities, but within these rural areas, those with better transport and broadband connectivity were even less affordable. Stakeholder reported that the high land values in the region undermine the viability of affordable housing.

Furthermore, these locations are also popular retirement and tourist destinations. It appears that local authorities in the South West with a greater proportion of second homes are less affordable and in-migration is dominated by arrivals from elsewhere in the UK (as opposed to international migration). This suggests, perhaps, the existence of a distinctive residential ‘offer’ in the region, one that attracts retirees, people working from home and those commuting to London and the South East, further increasing demand for new homes.

Finally, we looked at the supply of new homes compared with projected household formation since 1997. Over this period, the supply of new homes in the South West has not kept pace with demand, with an estimated deficit of 99,978 homes. This shortfall does not account for holiday lets or second homes, so is likely to be much greater. Most local authorities’ assessments of housing need will not address this shortfall by 2032.

Planned affordable eco-homes by Bromford Housing Association in Moreton-in-Marsh

What is the impact of Right to Buy?

Housing providers in the South West report that Right to Buy has had a detrimental impact on housing affordability in the region, particularly in respect of its role in the depletion of the overall stock of affordable housing. Since 1997, some 33,220 local authority-owned homes were sold through Right to Buy, whereas local authorities in the South West delivered only 2,320 new homes. The impact of Right to Buy appears to be particularly acute in small rural communities where a handful of sales locally might equate to a high proportion of total stock and may be difficult to replace given the higher unit costs of construction on small rural sites. In addition, development viability and funding challenges make it difficult for local authorities to replace social housing on a one-to-one basis.

What is the impact of national and local policy?

Regional stakeholders were critical of the complexity created by multiple definitions of affordable housing observed in planning policies. More importantly, they argued that these definitions do not equate to genuinely affordable housing.

The under-resourcing of planning was identified as a significant impediment to timely decision-making and on-site delivery.

Assessing future affordable housing need

To assess future housing need we estimated the number of new homes needed for each local authority in the South West from 2022 to 2039, and the proportion of new households that would need to spend more than 40% of their monthly income on mortgage repayments (i.e. unaffordable housing).

We estimated that around 28,337 homes need to be delivered in the region each year between 2022 and 2039, of which 17,282 would need to be affordable for those on median incomes – around 60%. These proportions are far greater than the thresholds in many planning policies.

Despite these challenges, stakeholders detailed how collaboration and partnership working between housing associations, local authorities and SME housebuilders was able to deliver affordable homes. They also highlighted that the delivery of affordable homes was intrinsic to other priorities, including ensuring high quality homes and responding to climate and ecological emergencies. Such practices provide opportunities on which to build to ensure that housing is delivered in the region which is affordable and sustainable.

The full report can be found here:

The key to post COVID-19 recovery: community leadership

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By Robin Hambleton….

As well as causing appalling suffering and misery, the COVID-19 pandemic is opening up new possibilities for the future.  An uplifting feature of the way that communities have responded to the COVID-19 calamity has been the spectacular expansion of self-organising community groups working at neighbourhood, or village, level to help the vulnerable and the needy.

While researching my new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better, I encountered many heart-warming stories of how local communities have responded with great imagination to the disruption of local food supply chains, taken steps to protect the most vulnerable in society, and engaged in all manner of creative, problem-solving activities at the local or hyper-local level.

My research suggests that cities and localities across the world now face four major challenges at once: 1) The COVID-19 health emergency, 2) A sharp, pandemic-induced economic downturn, 3) The climate change emergency, and 4) The disastrous growth of social, economic and racial inequality in many countries.

The good news is that many cities and localities are already developing and delivering progressive strategies that address these four challenges at one-and-the-same time.

An example of good civic leadership – Freiburg, Germany

The photographs in this piece are from one of the cities now leading the way in responding to current societal challenges.  Freiburg is, of course, very well known for pioneering high quality city planning and urban design. 

For example, the Academy of Urbanism joined with the City of Freiburg in publishing The Freiburg Charter for Sustainable Urbanism in 2011.The Academy wanted not just to recognise the achievements of civic leaders and city planners in Freiburg, but also to spread the word about their approach to an international audience.

What is not so well known is that Martin Horn, the young and energetic politician, who was elected as Mayor of Freiburg in 2018, is stepping up the progressive ambition of Freiburg’s policy making.  For example, he is insisting that, as well as meeting very high environmental standards, over 50% of new housing in the city must be affordable. Yes, that’s 50%. 

Detailed plans for Dietenbach, a new eco-friendly neighbourhood for 15,000 people, deliver on this objective.  Submitted to Freiburg City Council last month, these plans also provide open space, schools, sports facilities, day-care centres and local shopping opportunities.  

Meanwhile, the imaginative Freiburg holds together (Freiburg halt zusammen) digital network bundles together numerous citizen-oriented information services and activities for residents struggling with COVID-19 pressures.

Freiburg is just one of the progressive cities featured in my book.  Other cities discussed include Bristol, Copenhagen, Dunedin, Mexico City and Portland.

Children enjoying outdoor space in Vauban, Freiburg, Germany. (Source: the author).

Lessons for UK policy, practice and research

Three lessons for UK policy, practice and research emerge. 

First, the government’s 2020 White Paper, Planning for the Future, needs to be discarded as quickly as possible.  It contains proposals that will not just destroy effective approaches to local planning but also weaken councillor and citizen involvement in local decision-making.[i]   

The evidence from Freiburg, and other enlightened cities, demonstrates that high quality urban development designed to address the climate emergency, provide housing opportunities for the less well off in society, and build liveable communities requires more planning, not less.[ii]

Second, councillors in Freiburg, like all those in Germany, have the constitutional protection to do what they think is right for the people living in their locality.  German local authorities have, then, the freedom to do things differently.  This is not the case in the UK and it is essential to rebalance power within our country via a constitutional convention.  Comparative research can help to make the case for giving local power a major boost.

Third, researchers studying how to create sustainable cities and localities need to give much more attention to power relations.  Advancing our understanding of what needs to be done to co-create liveable cities and towns is vital.  However, just as important, research needs to explore how to bring about progressive change in society. 

What is the power system that is leading to unsustainable urban development?  How can this power system be changed?  What lessons can we learn from cities that are already delivering sustainable development?  These are the kinds of questions that deserve more active consideration by researchers studying modern urban, rural and regional development.

Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Film of book launch

Robin Hambleton’s new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19, was published in October 2020.  The book launch, organised by the Bristol Festival of Ideas, includes contributions from Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, who has written a Foreword to the book, and Professor Sheila Foster, University of Georgetown, Washington DC.  This discussion, which was chaired by Andrew Kelly, Director of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, is available here:


[i] Hambleton R. (2020) ‘Strong place-based leadership is instrumental in the battle against COVID-19’ The Planner, 19 October.

[ii] The key suggestion here is that public policy needs to advance caring in modern society – meaning caring for others and caring for the natural environment on which we all depend.  See Hambleton R. (2020) ‘COVID-19 opens a new political window’, Town and Country Planning, November/December, 89, 11/12, 366-370.

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