A concerted campaign of action to tackle Devon’s housing crisis will be debated by county councillors this week.
It comes as new figures show house price rises in some parts of Devon are among the highest in the country.
At the same time the lack of affordable rental properties means key workers in care, health and education can’t fill job vacancies because they can’t find anywhere to live.
And more and more long-term rental properties are being converted to short-term holiday lets or sold off to take advantage of rising prices.
Now county councillors are being asked to back a new strategic housing Task Force in partnership with Devon’s district councils and other key partners such as Homes England.
The council will also look at whether it could offer accommodation to key workers to attract them to work for the authority and lobby MPs to press for tax loopholes on holiday rental homes to be tightened up.
The actions will be discussed following the approval of a new strategic plan for Devon which commits the council to “doing whatever we can to make it easier for key workers and people on low incomes to find affordable homes”.
It also follows notices of motion on the housing crisis which have been submitted by the leaders of the opposition Liberal Democrat and Labour groups for debate at the full council meeting on Thursday (December 2).
Devon County Council leader John Hart said:
“I think this problem is so serious that we need a united, cross-party approach.
“The county council is not a housing authority. That is the job of the districts and we are not seeking to usurp any of their powers. But it is why we want to work in close partnership with them, our town and parish councils and Dartmoor National Park under the umbrella of Team Devon, which has been so successful in developing a countywide approach to the pandemic.
“Together we have a more powerful voice in lobbying the Government for the changes that need to be made.”
Liberal Democrat leader Alan Connett said:
“I welcome the county council changing its approach and looking to help tackle the new and mounting challenges to provide homes for key workers. There is no doubt there is a real shift in the housing markets in a way councils have not seen before. My own view is that as a country we should start building council houses again.
“A century ago we talked of homes fit for heroes, as the men returned from World War I. Today, we still need homes for modern heroes, including former service personnel, emergency workers, health and social care staff.”
In his notice of motion, Labour leader Rob Hannaford says:
“Council notes with concern that Devon is in the grips of a serious housing crisis.
“Second home sales are soaring, private landlords are switching to holiday letting in huge numbers, significantly fewer homes are available to buy or rent and both renters and buyers are being priced out of the county in an unprecedented way.”
John Hart, who also chairs Team Devon, said it had already discussed the issues.
The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show house price inflation in Devon is running at 13.4 per cent – more than Cornwall or Somerset – and some parts of the county are even higher. North Devon at 22.4 per cent is in the top 10 districts in the country for house price growth with Torridge on 19.8 per cent, the South Hams at 15.5 per cent and East Devon on 14.8 per cent.
Figures produced for Team Devon show Air B&B offering 253 rentals in Exmouth compared with just four residential lettings. In Ilfracombe the figures are 326 compared to four.
“Hospitality businesses in coastal areas can’t get staff because they can’t find anywhere to live and that is stifling our strong economic recovery,” said Mr Hart.
“But we’ve also heard from one Devon business which employs around 300 people which is considering re-locating some of its operations to Bristol because of the housing situation here.
“The county council is struggling to fill hundreds of vacancies for care staff who can’t find anywhere to live. And that has an impact on our hospitals if they can’t discharge patients who could go home with some support from a carer which would free up beds.
“Some schools are finding it difficult to recruit staff because they can’t find accommodation.”
Mr Hart said some necessary actions would need Government support but there was a lot councils could do themselves. Devon is to consider the potential to convert some offices or other properties into housing for key workers and offering grants towards deposits for house purchase.
Team Devon has a bid for Government cash to help promote small-scale housing projects providing local homes for local people under Community Land Trusts which is being led by Mid Devon District Council’s Chief Executive, Stephen Walford.
Councils could also learn from best practice in other areas and share ideas on how housing and planning policies could be adapted to ensure some affordable homes were allocated solely for essential local workers.
“There has always been an issue in Devon with young people not being able to live where they grew up because of low wages and high house prices but this is a perfect storm and we need to take urgent action,” said Mr Hart.