Communities must demand priority for affordable housing

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by Jolene Cargill

Communities need to demand councils give priority to affordable housing as requirements are relaxed in a bid to stimulate new developments, according to an independent charity.

Planning Aid for Scotland, which provides free advice on how to engage with the planning process, said if communities in Scotland didn’t tell local planning authorities they want greater priority for affordable housing the pressure to stimulate new development will leave affordable housing lagging behind, despite increasing demand.

Under Scottish Planning Policy the quota for the number of affordable homes built as part of new developments is 25%. That figure is not mandatory and Local Authorities can negotiate the percentage based on ‘level of need’ in accordance with their affordable housing, economic and planning policies.

According to the Scottish Government housing statistics, all 32 of Scotland’s Local Authorities have a shortage of affordable housing. As Newsnet revealed last week, Chief Planning Officer James McKinnon wrote to the heads of all planning authorities last month urging them to be ‘realistic’ about the percentage of affordable housing agreed in new housing developments.

But according to Petra Biberback, Chief Executive of Planning Aid Scotland, affordable housing needs have to be given equal consideration as councils look at ways to stimulate new developments. She said: “We know that with subsidy cuts it’s even harder to build the affordable homes we need for the future. What we are seeing is a clear mismatch of needs.

“On one side you have huge pressure on builders, with construction companies going under, and on the other you have the affordable housing strategies of councils which are increasingly influenced by other local plans.

“Even when Housing Associations can finance the building of affordable homes, communities often don’t want more affordable housing on their doorstep because there is a perception it will curtail the value of private properties. People need to come forward to support affordable housing.”

Property companies and developers have welcomed the pressure on Local Authorities to be flexible on the requirement for 25% affordable housing provision in new developments. The Scottish Property Federation said members had reported Local Authorities relaxing the affordable housing requirement in line with alternative measures to stimulate new developments.

Edinburgh City Council, which has the most pressured housing market in Scotland, is now working with developers using measures such as commuted sums, whereby instead of providing a percentage of affordable housing a private developer pays the council per unit in lieu of providing the affordable homes.

In February 2011 there were 1279 affordable housing units on site being constructed in Edinburgh. There were 3941 people on council waiting list in March 2010, but only 439 new lets available. It’s estimated that it would take nine years to clear the current waiting list.

A spokesman for Edinburgh City Council claimed there has never been a construction site in Edinburgh which has been made ‘unviable’ because of the affordable housing requirement and that it was being used to ‘kick-start developments all over the city’ including high profile sites such as Quartermile.

He said: “Edinburgh needs 16,600 affordable homes over the next 10 years. To address this acute shortage we need the 25% quota. However, we are aware of the current financial climate which is why our economic resilience policy allows us to work flexibly and creatively with developers.

“We will consider sites that can be used for affordable rent or low cost home ownership and also look at off-site development and commuted sums as suitable alternatives. We want to continue to work with developers to find solutions for sites that help us meet the affordable housing need of Scotland’s capital city.”

David Melhuish, Director of the Scottish Property Federation, said: “The 25% affordable housing requirement is a cost factor that undermines the bottom line. The cumulative costs of the public sector contributions weigh down the value of projects over time. Affordable housing is the biggest bulk of that contribution so we welcome the pressure on Local Authorities to be more flexible on the issue. We have to do all we can to stimulate development and safeguard jobs.”