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Housing time bomb threatens rural life
Planning – 4 June 2004

Affordable housing is a key issue on the Norfolk coastline but solutions seem as far away as ever, reports Mark Smulian

Crunch. That is the sound of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Planners in East Anglia face being caught between the two as the region grapples with the issue of how to house its citizens.

A pleasant environment and proximity to London are positive factors in most respects and the region's economic growth has sailed ahead. But the same factors have also brought an influx of second home owners, early retirees and long-distance commuters, all with the money to drive house prices up far beyond the means of most people who have grown up in the area.

"The crucial issue is affordable housing, as prices are beyond the reach of most residents," explains Simon Partridge, leader of North Norfolk District Council and portfolio holder for planning and environmental issues.

"Second homes and holiday homes are the reason. As soon as properties come onto the market, they are snapped up, mainly by people from the capital, and that pushes prices up."

North Norfolk is an area of large farms and small towns sandwiched between the coast and the Norfolk Broads. It is just beyond reasonable commuting distance from London, though not too far from the burgeoning Cambridge area. Unlike much of the east coast, the district still attracts holidaymakers as well as day trippers.

Cromer and Sheringham are the mainstays of the tourist economy, while smaller coastal communities like Wells-next-the-Sea and Mundesley also attract their fair share of visitors. Inland, the eastern end of the district overlaps with the Broads Authority's territory. In the west, the market town of Fakenham has been the subject of an RTPI award-winning revitalisation project.

Affordable housing is always a matter of money, boiling down to how much will be contributed by government through the Housing Corporation and how much can be extracted from developers through planning gain. In North Norfolk, the added twist is that even if more money was available, it would be difficult to build in places where house prices are at their highest.

The natural environment is the district's main selling point. Building on greenfield, let alone the area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) along the coast, would damage the attraction that brings in moneyed new residents and the tourists who support the area's main economic activity.

"The environment is paramount. It is why everyone comes here," insists Partridge. This is not easy to square with providing more homes, Partridge has asked his planners to "be radical" in their thinking about the problem, but admits that if any easy solution were on offer it would have been implemented long since. "Our planners have been told that the key issue is affordable housing and we do not want housing and planning staff working in silos, as may have been the case in the past. We are telling them to go and look at innovations and work together."

Norfolk County Council's structure plan is based on a forecast growth in population from 765,100 in 1993 to 845,900 in 2011 and a fall in average household size from 2.36 to 2.18 people during the same period. County policy is to concentrate new housing in the larger towns further south.

"The structure plan allows us 6,400 more homes of all kinds by 2021, which is not a lot each year," says Partridge.

In most of North Norfolk's towns, development is only allowed where it improves the balance with jobs and services and is in keeping with the form and character of the settlement and its setting. As an exception to this general approach, the structure plan allows such provision to be made in large villages where these criteria are met and sites have been identified in local plans.

But while pressure builds up from buyers with money to spend, environmental and financial constraints mean that the supply of housing can never catch up. The National Housing Federation (NHF) eastern region joined the fray this spring with a report setting out in stark detail the problems faced by councils in areas of housing pressure across East Anglia. That description applies to most of the region, albeit for varying reasons.

Average house prices in the NHF eastern region rose by 73 per cent between 1999 and 2003, from 99,175 to 171,750, compared with a national average rise of 63 per cent, while incomes rose by only 32 per cent. Average house prices are more than six times the regional average wage of 27,304 a year, so the usual mortgage multiplier of three-and-a-half times salary does not go very far.

Last year only 1,246 affordable homes were built across the region, half the total of four years ago and 4,500 short of what is needed. The NHF argues that "crisis" is the only word to describe the situation. "Unless you are rich or very poor, your chances of getting a home that fits your circumstances are small," it warns.

Partridge argues that the affordability factor is even worse in North Norfolk, where the typical wage is somewhere between 15,000 to 18,000 a year and 5,000 second homes account for ten per cent of the entire stock.

The council has increased its affordable homes requirement to 40 per cent on sites where section 106 agreements apply, but is stuck with a lot of old planning permissions.

"A lot of North Norfolk is AONB land and there is a tension because tourism is big business here. People come for the view and do not want to see it destroyed by houses," explains Partridge. "There are different political pressures over both the environment and housing, but the degree of public concern about protecting the AONB is the highest priority. We will not build on it."

The council's affordable provision policy has been overturned, along with one insisting that barns may be converted only for holiday homes, not permanent accommodation. "Even with planning gain, we are not getting anywhere near what is needed," Partridge admits. Even away from the coastal AONB territory, the council faces an uphill struggle to provide homes to turn villages back into "vibrant communities", one of its main objectives.

"The problem in villages is that few are sustainable," complains Partridge.

"Most have lost their employment sources. If they have anything they have a pub, but no shop or other services. They are becoming settlements of predominantly retired people. Because of that and second homes we do not get young families, so there are no children and no schools. So eventually there will be no young people and no jobs."

Even if land and money were available, the council is reluctant to allow building where no-one can find employment. "We do not want to create ghettos of homes with no jobs in the countryside," Partridge emphasises. But it is unable to allow building in the environmentally sensitive areas close to where local people might find work in tourism and services.

Michael Bedford sees the problem from the other side of the fence. He runs a family estate agency business with branches across Norfolk, including Burnham Market, the favoured choice of people moving to the county from London. "Generally, prices are up in North Norfolk along the coastal strip.

There are a lot of holiday homes and there always have been," he confirms.

Bedford explains that a two-bedroom cottage on the coast would sell for 250,000 to 300,000. "But as soon as you go five miles inland you can knock 100,000 off that," he notes. In his view, local price rises slowed a little last year, but the long-term trend is for a ten per cent year-on-year rise. "The problem is that truly local people who want a home cannot afford the houses, and I don't know what the solution is."

One possible source of homes is the 1,000 empty properties in the area.

But Partridge points out that these require complex negotiations with owners and make little overall impression on the 1,800-strong waiting list for 5,000 council homes. Since private builders can sell anything that they can build, their preference is to provide larger, more costly homes yielding greater profits.

Whether planners can make sense of these conflicting pressures remains to be seen. The NHF's proposed solution is, unsurprisingly, more investment in affordable housing. "The government has started to invest more in housing and has begun the process of planning reform. But the pace of change is too slow," it maintains. "The government must go much further and much faster if we are to effectively tackle what can genuinely be called a crisis in housing."

"It is a vicious circle," Partridge acknowledges. "Potentially, we have a massive problem looming with key workers. Over the next ten or 15 years, our age profile will keep getting older and there will not be enough younger people to provide the services needed to look after older people. Market forces are against us. The government has to put more money into affordable homes."

How the nation's housing crisis is undermining English village life

North Norfolk's problems are by no means unique; rural and coastal areas across southern England would recognise the issues raised. The situation has prompted the Countryside Agency to set up a network of rural housing enablers to link organisations involved in affordable housing provision.

The agency puts the median price for rural homes across England at 121,000 - a 17 per cent increase over the two years to 2003 and 3,000 more than that for the median urban home. Carol Southall, the agency's enabler for Wiltshire, describes problems that would be familiar in Norfolk.

The essential difference is that it is London commuters, rather than second home owners, who are driving up prices in the county. "A lot of villages have seen homes bought by commuters because we are within striking distance of both London and Bristol. The trend is upward, as nowhere in Wiltshire is far from a station," says Southall.

"We have lost lots of local shops because the people who move here don't use local services - they drive to supermarkets," she adds. "Post offices have closed and so have schools as incomers often do not have children, being either retired or double income no kids."

Southall's post is funded by both the Countryside Agency and the Housing Corporation. Her main task is to prove housing need to facilitate section 106 deals in villages. Local councils can seek 50 per cent affordable housing on new developments in villages and 30 per cent in market towns, Southall explains.

But in many rural areas, affordable provision is not a question of money alone. It is also a question of land being available in environmentally valuable areas and of jobs being present or created. Meanwhile, ageing, if relatively wealthy, communities are developing in isolated rural and coastal areas, with insufficient younger people to provide services.

Paradoxically, those who move to the countryside to enjoy village life may end up destroying what they came to find as local services decline through lack of use and village populations fail to renew themselves with younger residents.

Area housing profile

Norfolk average house prices 2003 Pounds

Flat or maisonette: 62,000

Terraced property: 86,100

Semi-detached property: 113,900

Detached property: 176,000

Source: Nationwide, December 2003

Annual housing demand in north Norfolk

Progressive clearance of housing need backlog: 124 homes

Newly arising need: 675 homes

Gross affordable housing requirement: 799 homes

Supply of affordable homes: 290 homes

Net annual affordable housing requirement: 509 homes

Source: North Norfolk District Council

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