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:

“Where are ‘smart’ sustainable cities made?” Recognising, raising and responding to shared questions…

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by Rebecca Windemer, Torik Holmes and Carla De Laurentis

Where are ‘smart’ sustainable cities made?

The three of us met during our respective ESRC post-doctoral fellowships during the Covid pandemic. Eager to strengthen existing connections and forge new ones, during a time when researchers were grappling with learning new ways of academic working, we engaged in a number of online discussions related to our research interests. We soon realised that although from different disciplinary backgrounds (planning, innovation, and sociology), our research areas overlapped and we shared a topical concern with energy transitions and their material, spatial and temporal dimensions.

We have now organised two workshops, written a book chapter and a journal article (both currently under-review) focused on the connections between infrastructures, climate change and sustainability. Under the artistic direction of Mair Perkins, we also produced the embedded animation above. It draws on insights from our independent and combined research.

The video’s title – ‘Where are ‘smart’ sustainable cities made?’ – is one of the questions we have raised and responded to in conjunction.

‘Smarter’ and more sustainable city visions hinge on the increasing generation of clean power and the electrification of everyday modes of travel, working and living arrangements.

The animation tells an important story about socially, institutionally and geographically saturated and stretched energy infrastructures and the interconnections between various sites of demand and systems of provision. Indeed, it conveys the importance of ‘following the wires’ to reveal points of tension along networks of provision where sustainable transitions are calibrated. This somewhat bucks against the norm.

‘Smart’ city research has typically involved turning to cities with smart and sustainable aspirations to address empirical questions, examining, along the way, local discourses, strategies and sited innovations. A great deal of resources, time and effort have been poured into smart city discourses and, indeed, into making cities smarter and, so the rationale goes, more sustainable.

Following the wires can help reveal points of tensions along networks of provision.

Researchers have taken a great deal of interest in these topics and things going on ‘in’ cities. Recognising this and drawing on our knowledge, we were drawn to focus instead on the wider ordering and management of key service infrastructures and the provision of renewable sources of energy, both of which have received less attention in smart city literature. This is the case even though these are critical for smart and sustainable city ambitions. In quite rudimentary terms, without an ability to connect to electricity networks and without the provision of clean energy, smart and sustainable city buildings, technologies, policies and initiatives would not (and will not) materialise.

We hope the video speaks for itself and sparks discussion and consideration of what changes are needed in and indeed beyond cities to facilitate sustainable shifts. Through doing so, we hope it also reveals the benefits of interdisciplinary collaborations in facilitating broader discussion around sustainability and net zero agendas.

We are thankful to the ESRC for funding our post-doctoral fellowships as well as the video produced.

A short note about the authors:

Dr Rebecca Windemer is a senior lecturer in environmental planning at UWE and a member of the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments. Her teaching and research crosses the disciplines of environmental planning and energy geography. Her teaching and research interests involve the regulation of renewable energy infrastructure and how the planning system can help achieve net zero ambitions.

Dr Torik Holmes is a sociologist and social science researcher based in the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research interests focus on connected systems of provision, consumption and disposal, with electricity and plastics forming central subjects.

Dr Carla De Laurentis is a lecturer in Environmental Management in UWE and a member of the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments. Her research interests converge around the geography of innovation and low-carbon transitions. She is particularly interested in understanding the mechanisms that lead to an effective diffusion of renewable energy technologies and how energy infrastructure networks, and their reconfiguration, might influence renewables deployment.   

Talk of the Town

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by Nick Smith…

A lot has been written about Build, Build, Build[i] over the last couple of weeks and I share the same level of unease about some of the proposals. But we’ve been here before. Indeed, while you won’t have had the date marked in your calendar, last week marked the 5-year anniversary of when Fixing the Foundations[ii] was published. Back then, this plan for ‘creating a more prosperous’ nation, was penned by George Osbourne (as Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Sajid Javid (as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills). Chapter 9 ‘dealt’ with planning and some of the chapter’s sub-headings, including its promises for releasing land and increasing the urgency of planning, echo what has been said recently by Boris Johnson. Fortunately, the same level of derision was aired back in 2015, with the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright[iii], for example, highlighting how the planned reform would give us the ‘slums of the future’. Oliver called for better public outcomes and it’s good that campaigning on this agenda has gained momentum since (with the TCPA’s pitch for a Healthy Homes Act being particularly noteworthy).

Chapter 15 of Fixing the Foundations also promised us a re-balancing of the UK’s economy. While some of the proposals in Build, Build, Build could be argued to support such a goal, the call for spreading prosperity was far stronger within the New Deal for Britain[iv] that Boris Johnson also launched a couple of weeks ago. Specifically, via a section on ‘investing in, and accelerating, infrastructure’, the New Deal provided an update on the Government’s Town Fund[v], a £3.6bn scheme that is intended to accelerate investment in town centres and high streets across England. The first tranche of money equates to an individual pot of about £500k-£1m per town but funding of up to £25m per town is ultimately expected from future waves of funding. At this time of gloominess this money cannot come quick enough. But what next? How will this money be spent and will projects be properly planned?

Before we focus on that, let’s remind ourselves on how the Towns Fund originated. Officially the fund emerged from a combination of two other initiatives that had been launched earlier in 2019, namely the Stronger Towns Fund and the Future High Streets Fund. The former had been introduced by Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, with her launch speech targeting those towns with ‘glorious heritage, huge potential, and with bright futures ahead of them’. This same sentiment was pitched by Johnson himself when he launched the Towns Fund shortly after his election in July 2019. Whilst acknowledging that not everyone wanted to live in ‘our country’s great cities’, he promised to ‘start answering the pleas of some of our left behind towns’.

A formal prospectus for the Towns Fund was published in November 2019[vi]. The number of identified towns equate to a hundred, with Swindon, Bournemouth, Glastonbury, Bridgwater, Torquay, Truro, Camborne, St. Ives and Penzance representing the south west. Each of these towns has been funded to establish ‘Town Deal Boards’, authority-led partnerships that are intended to bring relevant stakeholders together. Once in place, each board is required to prepare their own ‘Town Investment Plan’ (TIP) which needs to present a vision for the town, and include action plans for delivering change over the short, medium and long term (although no specific timescales are defined).

A week before Build, Build, Build, the Government released further guidance on the Towns Fund and invited eligible towns to decide whether or not to submit their TIP by the end of July 2020 or in a later cohort, by either October 2020 or early 2021[vii]. Making such a submission will enable the towns to unlock funding. The funds continue to be justified on the basis of promoting local economic growth, but the latest document also acknowledges the impact of COVID-19 and the additional vulnerabilities and weaknesses that the pandemic has exposed across our towns. As for what the money can be spent upon, the guidance outlines six intervention themes. These include improvements to local transport, skills and enterprise infrastructure, as well as funding for the arts, culture and heritage. It will be interesting to see what comes forward given the breadth of possibilities. It is acknowledged that the fund can only go so far and the competitiveness of the programme feels somewhat wrong in these fragile times. It also remains unclear why certain towns were selected, while others were not, and I can’t help wondering what binds these places together. The guidance does talk about encouraging collaboration between the towns so I hope this joint learning is actioned. Although the further guidance mentions planning in a range of contexts, I hope planners are able to take a lead since in my view, the TIPS are essentially mini-local plans. But will they and how will the TIPs sync with plan-making and other local planning activities? By allowing planners to take a leading role, the Towns Fund can hopefully help to dispel recent narratives that have painted the planner as the ‘pantomime villain’ rather than as the un-locker of growth. I do hope the fund can fire-up some much-needed enthusiasm and creativity for pursuing a town-led ‘urban renaissance’ and I will certainly be interested in what is being planned to help bring our

[i] Prime Minister’s Office (2020) Build, Build, Build. Press Release. Available from: Last accessed 06/07/2020

[ii] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Treasury (2015) Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation. Available from: Last accessed 06/07/2020

[iii] Wainwright, O. (2015) ‘Osborne’s planning reforms risk creating slums of the future’. The Guardian. 10 July. Available from: Last accessed 06/07/2020

[iv] Prime Minister’s Office (2020) A New Deal for Britain. Press Release. Available from: Last accessed 06/07/2020

[v] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government[MHCLG] (2019) Town Fund Prospectus. Available from: Last accessed 06/07/2020

[vi] As above.

[vii] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government[MHCLG] (2020) Town Fund: Further Guidance. Available from: Last accessed 06/07/2020

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