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Public asked for views on housing ‘challenges’

The price of housing is one of Cambridge’s greatest issues (along with the horrendous traffic), but how can you make the city affordable for families who are not luck enough to draw a six-figure salary? ALEX SPENCER has been taking a look at the councils’ proposals.

Councillor Richard Johnson. Picture: Keith Heppell. (6180797)
Councillor Richard Johnson. Picture: Keith Heppell. (6180797)

Rocketing house prices mean many people on average wages simply cannot afford to buy or rent a home in Cambridge.

In the past there have been claims that the high prices are changing the demographics of the city, pushing the less well off out into the villages and towns across Cambridgeshire where the cost of living is a bit more realistic.

The average weekly wage in the city of about £715 (the national average is £539) hides the fact that many key workers are on salaries nowhere near enough to live in Cambridge – the median salary for a nurse is £23,000, that’s about £442 a week.

Providing housing for all incomes, including those on benefits, is a challenge that involves both Cambridge city and South Cambridgeshire district councils.

Their response is a new strategy, which the public are being asked to view and comment on.

It’s no easy task. On top of homes becoming unaffordable - houses now cost around 11 times the average wage - Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire also have to accommodate a growing and ageing population.

Cambridge City Council’s executive councillor for housing, Cllr Richard Johnson, said: “There are incredible pressures on housing through our growing and ageing population.

“People can’t afford to buy here - the average house price in Cambridge is more than £500,000. That is more than some London boroughs. One way to deal with this is to increase the supply of houses.”

Cambridge remains top of the UK league for economic growth prospects, while South Cambridgeshire villages are regularly named among the best places to live, with the highest quality of life in the UK.

However, both remain expensive places to buy or rent a home.

Cllr Johnson added: “Cambridge is a wonderful place to live, with a strong economy and a bright future – but for this success to continue we need to ensure that people have the good quality, affordable homes they need.

“This draft strategy sets out some of the ways we can ensure housing in the area meets growing demands, while being as affordable as possible to as many people as possible.

“The £70million for council homes from the devolution deal has started this process, and we are already on track to build 500 new council homes in the coming years. But we need to continue to innovate in a number of different ways to tackle the shortage of affordable homes here, bring back empty properties into use and tackle issues such as rough sleeping.

“I would encourage all residents and interested parties to take part in this consultation and help us forge a strategy that will give residents of the Cambridge city and South Cambridgeshire areas the homes and communities they deserve, to lead happy and fulfilled lives here.”

People are being asked to comment on Homes for our Future: The Greater Cambridge housing strategy, the draft document published jointly by Cambridge city and South Cambridgeshire district councils, that details how the two authorities will aim to meet housing challenges for the next five years.

The public consultation is being run until Friday, January 25, to give residents an opportunity to influence the strategy before it is finalised next year.

South Cambridgeshire District Council’s lead cabinet member for housing, Cllr Hazel Smith, added: “One of the highest priorities for our administration is to increase the number of homes that are affordable to live in. They need to be as close to jobs as possible, and we will be trying to find ways to ensure they’re as energy efficient as they can be.

“This strategy sets out how, working with Cambridge City Council, we hope to achieve these ambitions and build strong, healthy communities.

“We have no option but to be bold in our aims because we know how difficult it is for young people to get on the housing ladder here and how tough some employers find it attracting staff because they can’t afford to live in the area. It’s also hugely important that we plan for the aging population because right now it can be tricky to find the right type of home to live in when you are a pensioner.

“Having the right type of home, that leaves you with enough income to live life and have fun, is vital for the health and wellbeing of people at all stages of life so I would urge everyone to comment on our draft housing strategy, so we can hear first-hand if you think that we’re on the right track. We will listen, and your comments will influence how we meet South Cambridgeshire’s housing challenges.”

To comment on the draft Greater Cambridge Housing Strategy, visit scambs.gov.uk/consultations or cambridge.gov.uk/consultations

What does the draft strategy propose?

New council homes

The strategy sets out the two councils’ aims for providing more affordable homes between 2019 and 2023.

In South Cambridgeshire, this includes delivering at least 200 energy-efficient council homes, working with businesses to provide homes that are affordable and available to their workers, exploring the potential for a retirement village, providing self-build plots and working with communities to give them more influence over development.

Cambridge City Council has pledged to deliver at least 500 new energy-efficient council homes, as well as continuing to bring empty homes back into use, delivering affordable homes on council-owned sites and working to reduce rough sleeping and homelessness.

The goal is to have work started on all council house builds by 2022.

Building affordable housing

The Local Plan for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire sets out what proportion of new build sites have to include affordable housing. In Cambridge, 25 per cent of homes on sites of 11-14 units should be affordable, with 40 per cent on sites of 15 or more. In South Cambridgeshire the figure is 40 per cent affordable homes on all sites of 11 or more dwellings.

Affordable rental homes

To ensure homes are actually affordable, the councils propose to cap affordable rents at around 60-70 per cent of the open market rent.

The greatest need is for social rented housing for those on low incomes and all new affordable housing for rent will be required to be made available to those on the Home-Link Housing Register.

Middle incomes earners priced out of housing market

The paper identifies a gap in the market for those earning between £30,000-£50,000, who currently cannot afford to buy a home at market price.

On average, a house in Cambridge costs £523,193 - which would require 11.8 times the average wage of £37,200. Only households on a wage of at least £134,535, with a deposit of £52,319, could buy an average-priced house with a mortgage. This prices most people out of the market.

The councils say they will encourage developers to build discounted market homes - at 20 per cent below market value - which will be affordable for those on middle incomes. These will be one and two bed accommodation.

The strategy says: “As well as public sector employees providing frontline services, we also want to take into account the needs of other workers who provide the support services necessary for the economy. It is important that housing provision, in particular a range of affordable housing options, supports the local economy and helps to reduce long commuting distances to work.”

Dealing with empty homes

Homes lying empty in Cambridge and being used for investment has been a problem highlighted many times. The strategy outlines how the two councils hope to discourage this practice.

“We will be charging double tax on any empty homes from next April,” said Cllr Johnson. “There are other things we can use, like compulsory purchase orders. But it’s a very bureaucratic process and it can take years to take control of a house sitting empty for a long period. We also work with landlords to bring empty properties back into rental use.”

Pensioner population boom

The number of elderly people in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire looks set to increase dramatically over the next 17 year, according to projections in the draft paper.

There is a projected 69 per cent increase in the number of 65-75 year olds from 2011 to 2036. Over the same period there will be a 119 per cent and 196 per cent increase in the number of over 85s in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire respectively.

This huge boom in the elderly population means there will be a shortfall specialist housing and care beds for older people and this only looks set to widen if action is not taken.

The strategy suggests around 7 per cent of new homes should be specialist housing for older people.

South Cambridgeshire is considering building a retirement village and exploring the potential for intergenerational living arrangements.

Both councils looking at prioritising support in people’s own homes to avoid the need for more age exclusive and extra care properties.

Gypsies and travellers

The draft paper says: “There has been a noticeable increase over the last year in the number of temporary unauthorised encampments across Greater Cambridge, particularly gypsies and travellers needing to access hospital treatment.

“Over recent years the councils have tried to identify an appropriate location for a transit and/or emergency stopping place site in the area but have been unable to find anything suitable. We will need to reconsider how we can meet these needs going forward.”

They have identified a need for 12 extra pitches in South Cambridgeshire for travelling showpeople but no requirement for new gypsy and traveller pitches.

The 2011 census identified 0.1 per cent of the population as a white gypsy/Irish traveller in Cambridge and 0.3 per cent in South Cambridgeshire, equating to an overall figure of just under 600 residing in Greater Cambridge.

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