Devon’s housing crisis: the champions of change

Photo courtesy of North Devon and Torridge Housing Crisis Group

How many of us have experienced, or can begin to really comprehend, what it is to be without a home? How many of us have known the unsettling insecurity of living in rented accommodation at the whim of a landlord who might at any moment, once the fixed term contract is up, issue a Section 21 notice (otherwise known as ‘no fault’ evictions) and ask us to be out in two months? Now compound that anxiety with the knowledge that there is almost nothing out there on the market for you to rent and, if there is, there will be 20, 30 people competing with you to secure it.

Oh, and there’s no question of being in a position to buy anything! Wages down in here in Devon won’t allow you to get on the housing ladder. Those rungs are occupied by retirees from the more affluent south east, or second homers who spend a fortnight recreating the beach holiday idyll of their youth and smiling at the money rolling in from Airbnb takings for the rest of the season. The fact is, that despite many MPs’ unwillingness to describe it as such, there is a housing crisis in the west country. And it’s getting worse.

Emma Hookway is the founder of North Devon and Torridge Housing Crisis Group, which she created in response to her own experience. She had been living in a property in Braunton for four and a half years when she got served with a Section 21, rather earlier into her tenancy than she had been led to expect. The initial shock quickly turned into panic as she realised that there was nothing in her price bracket and more expensive places were being snaffled by people able to pay 12 months rent in advance – often because they had sold their own property in the south east and were now cash rich and desperate to be in a position to buy something in the area. With demand so dramatically outstripping supply, landlords can afford to be picky – no pets, no sharers, no children. These are her words:

“Local people are priced out of the market. The average wage in Devon makes it really hard to afford anything, especially if you live on your own or are a single parent. People are driven to take desperate measures, like the couple living in their parents’ shed in the garden. My own son is only little and he was really frightened about having to move. He’d heard a TV program in the morning called ‘Rich House, Poor House’ and there was a guy from Swansea who said that he had to live in a tent on the dunes. This is was what made Louie cry instantly and question where we were going to be homed, worrying that it would be on Braunton Burrows in a tent. This was when I had to go into a full explanation about everything to do with the housing crisis to make him feel calm but that was also when I walked away feeling panicked and decided to do something, to reach out to other people in the same boat. And there’s a real stigma to being made homeless. People instantly jump to the conclusion that you must have done something wrong, been a nightmare tenant or whatever.”

In a hot market, with the extra distortion of an influx of people choosing a coastal lifestyle, having discovered during the pandemic that it’s possible to work from home, it is not surprising that landlords are looking to extract maximum bang from their property buck. That’s human nature, isn’t it? “People say ‘why don’t you live somewhere you can afford?’.” Emma continues. “But I am from here. I work here – cleaning holiday lets, ironically – and my son goes to school here. Why should I have to uproot my family? Why should any of us? I don’t want to be the last of my family buried in the local graveyard.

“Look. I totally get that people want to live here. Of course, they do. It’s beautiful. But government and the council have to take steps to address the crisis and it is a crisis, no matter what my MP Selaine Saxby says. We can’t get teachers and nurses to work down here because there is nothing to rent and it’s all too expensive to buy. The headmaster at my son’s school says recruitment is a real issue. There’s a big pharmaceutical company near me which may be shut down because the inability to get the staff makes it no longer viable – and that is all about the lack of housing.

“There are lots of us caught up in this crisis, the group picked up 600 members in just a few days. We petitioned Selaine Saxby to get her to acknowledge that something needs to be done, and she has now mentioned it in parliament. I have been in the local press and on national radio, raising awareness, and now I want to get groups from all over the country to come together to strengthen our voice. Collectively, we can make a big noise – and we need to.

“The ending of the extension to the Section 21 notice period (doubled to four months to reflect the impact of Covid-19) needs to be reversed. Two months just isn’t long enough in this market and Covid is still with us. We’re coming up to Christmas and to be homeless at Christmas is a terrible thing. It’s a massive mental health issue and for some, this will just tip them over the edge. The government will have blood on its hands.”

Emma’s group has put together manifestos for local and national government:

Manifesto for Central Government

1. Allow local authorities to borrow to build community need housing without restriction and prioritise use of all local authority and Govt owned land for this purpose.

2. End ‘Right to buy’, at least, until the housing crisis is solved and then ensure all receipts from any sales are spent on building community need housing.

3. Remove the tax advantages currently given to Furnished Holiday Lets and treat all income on same basis as Assured Shorthold Tenancy Lets. Remove the 100% small business rates relief for holiday homes.

4. Properly regulate by law Furnished Holiday Lets to the same standards of safety and compliance as Assured Shorthold Tenancies.

 5. Introduce a tax on properties left empty for longer than 18 months of 5% of property value per annum to make leaving properties empty economically unviable.

 6. Introduce a tax on 2nd homes occupied for fewer than 90 days per annum of 3% of property value per annum to force owners to either rent out or sell.

7. Introduce a tax on property developer land banks, held without development, to encourage building not speculating.

 8. Define “affordable housing” based on local income levels and not market rates. Place statutory requirement on developers to provide a minimum of 20% affordable homes in all developments.

9. Reform tenancy laws to create a long-term rental model similar to that in Germany to allow tenants security of tenure and long-term landlords security of income. Section 21 evictions to be increased to a minimum of 6 month’s notice and based on the principle of no fault = no eviction.

10. Until the current housing crisis is solved, introduce a temporary ban in areas within x miles of coast or within a National Park or AONB on all new house sales or purchasing to let to anyone who does not have a local connection. An exception to this ban should only apply where it enables a family member to work in a local shortage employment sector.

Manifesto for Local Government

1. Introduce a licensing scheme for furnished holiday lets and allow regulation of the number of properties in any one area by the local authority.

2. Require change of use for any property being converted from a permanent residence to a holiday let.

3. Write to all holiday homeowners to inform them that if they use domestic rubbish collection they will immediately be liable for Council Tax and that the local authority will inform HMRC that they are no longer a Furnished Holiday Let for tax purposes.

 4. Increase Council Tax to 200% for second homes and ring fence any funding raised for local housing development.

5. Increase the percentage requirement to the maximum allowed in legislation for affordable housing for all new developments.

6. All new builds to be covenanted as primary residence. Audit all existing social housing and those sold under Right To Buy to ensure any covenant on primary residence is enforced I.e. they are not being used as holiday lets.

7. Actively promote a sustainable model of Community Land Trusts, fund and encourage their establishment to build local homes for local residents on long term tenancies at affordable social rent levels.

8. Build any community need housing possible now using fastest construction methods, sustainable construction and where possible including modular homes. Work with developers and landowners to identify sites adjacent to housing developments that could be utilised for rapidly erected modular housing.

9. Prioritise use of any council owned land, and other property related receipts to directly help improve supply.

10. Identify all empty properties, commercial and town centre accommodation, and how long they have been empty. Requisition all those homes empty for longer than 12 months; offer requisitioned homes to homeless and those on priority waiting lists; empty properties are to be offered cheaper to tenants that can renovate homes themselves.

11. Review all current housing regulations to look for powers the council have to maximise available homes for rent.

Gemma Marshall, founder of Roof Kingsbridge in the South Hams, is another grassroots campaigner, driven by her own story to reach out to people struggling to find rentals or affordable homes.

“So many people are desperate round here, but of course, the area is dominated by second homes and holiday lets. When a rental does come up, there are 30 or 40 people competing for it. In fact, many demand that applicants write a pitch explaining why they should be chosen as the next lucky inhabitant.

“And it’s all very well to say to people that they have to be willing to take a property within a 20 mile radius, but that just isn’t practical when you have children at school or work to get to. When I was looking, I should have been able to go to the council and ask to be put in emergency housing, but it was all full at the time. If you’re really desperate, they put you up in a Travelodge in Plymouth, which is well over an hour away by bus. I had to live with my parents for a bit.

 “I spoke to our MP Anthony Mangnall fairly early on, but he fell back on the old ‘that’s the free market’ thing. To be fair to South Hams Council, they have formally declared that there’s a housing crisis but we have yet to see what impact their policies have.

“Defining affordable rent as 80 per cent of the market rent for an area is just crazy when the market rents are sky high. Nobody can afford them on the sort of wages people can earn around here. And it’s all very well saying ‘live somewhere else’ but the kids need to be near their grandparents for childcare and, anyway, how is the tourist industry going to survive with no locals to work in it?

“I just want central government to focus on the provision of more social and affordable housing and introduce tighter controls over second homes and holiday lets.”

Adam Taylor, owner of the social enterprise Taylored Games, got involved in Roof Kingsbridge after he and his family endured the massive shock of a totally unexpected Section 21 notice. Having sorted out somewhere to live, Adam is now keen to help others trying to navigate the system.

“People react with worry and fear when they get a Section 21, especially in these difficult times when there is so much uncertainty out there already. People don’t know where they stand legally and there’s a lot of misinformation out there. We struck lucky because we are well-known in the town and our network of friends gave us huge support, but in the worst-case scenario, if we hadn’t managed to find anywhere we’d have ended up having to close our business.

“In our case, the previous landlord wanted a very short notice period because she wanted to stop renting it out and live in it herself, prior to sale. We’ll skip the details on this but suffice it to say that while she lived in our house, she rented out her old home on very lucrative terms over the holiday season. Seven months later and ‘our’ house was back on the market for £200 a month more than we had been paying. So much for it being for sale.

“The disparity in prices in the London area and anywhere else is massive. My parents sold the house they’d lived in for 30 years in the London belt, paid off their mortgage, bought a house outright in Lancashire and still had a lump of money left at the end of it all, so you can see how London money distorts the market. Plus, there is almost no availability down here, so that pushed prices up even further.

“To cap it all, there’s the distortion caused by the fact that Kingsbridge is in the Torquay area for housing benefit purposes, and there’s a big disparity In rental costs between Torquay and here. A housing allowance of £675 a month for a three-bed house just won’t go far at all here, and all because it’s based on Torquay.

“I want to see the government build more social housing and stop second homes. We need rental caps and affordability linked to local salaries. Airbnb should need planning permission. It used to be a way to make some money out of a spare room, if you were lucky enough to have one, but now people buy up whole houses just to do Airbnb.”

Devon County Council recently estimated that there are around 70 per cent of privately owned properties that were rented out two years ago that are no longer available for tenants, while official figures revealed house prices in some parts of the county have risen by as much as 20 per cent in the past year. The data from the Office for National Statistics also shows eight per cent of properties in the South Hams are now second homes, with four per cent in North Devon and East Devon.

Prana Simon is working on the Devon Community Housing (DCH) Hub, an online service and signposting hub, which could really help pull stakeholders together to come up with community-led, innovative and affordable solutions to the housing shortage. The DCH Hub website will launch in the New Year; it is sponsored by Devon Communities Together and backed by seven housing associations and four councils. It will be a resource for information and support, helping with funding applications, sharing success stories and exploring more unconventional options like self-build and tiny homes.

“Councils used to provide social and affordable housing but since the Localism Act of 2011, government have largely outsourced housing policy to the private sector. The trouble is, there is little or no comeback on market forces. Housebuilders and developers promise affordable housing when applying for planning and then renege on promised delivery, claiming that rising costs mean it’s no longer economically viable to build cheaper sale homes. They have a contingency set aside for cost increases, but they also know councils are not going to spend time and money on a legal contest trying to hold them to their original proposal.

“There’s a fair bit of nimbyism around social housing” observes Prana. “People who have moved down from the south of England complain about the impact of cheaper homes on the price of their property, unfortunately, which cools appetite for this model overall. Housing Associations are finding it difficult to secure funding to deliver more as well.

“We can help with neighbourhood plans, commissioning housing needs surveys which are valid for five years each, and capture factors like numbers of younger people leaving home, trends in upsizing, downsizing in an area. Mind you, we’re all a bit in limbo at the moment waiting to see what Michael Gove will do after the poor reception Cummings’ white paper on planning policy received last year. Our own South Hams MP Anthony Mangnall is worried about its laxness for AONBs.”

Prana is a housing professional with years of volunteering behind her in the sector, Emma, Gemma and Adam are all passionate, well-informed and highly motivated to raise awareness and bring about change. If between them they can bring together similar groups from across the country, their voices will be amplified and Mr Gove might feel inclined to listen to them as well as to his disgruntled colleagues. Maybe, at long last, we’ll see some positive moves in housing that meet local needs and ease the anxiety and despair of the those who cannot be sure of having a roof over their head.

PS: Looks like Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, is on the case: