York’s historic charm, its good transport links, the expansion of its educational institutions and the relocation of big businesses all contribute to its allure as a place to live. The frequent reports citing the city as one of least affordable places to live in the country are therefore no surprise to York’s 200,000 or so residents. Darren Baxter and Alison Wallace for the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy identify the key factors driving unafforability of housing, suggesting that strong civic leadership is needed to prevent the people who do the very jobs that sustain the economic life of the city being pushed out.
The exact number of new homes that York needs is unclear and has been subject to some considerable debate. Evidence underpinning the local plan prepared by the City of York council suggests that 850 homes need to be built per year to take account of predicted population growth over the next 25 years on top of the need to address the current backlog of affordable housing. What is clear however is that housing delivery so far has failed to come anywhere close to meeting these proposed, and subsequently withdrawn, targets.
Supply is also not just a question of delivering number of houses. As is the case at the national level, it is necessary to ensure that homes are built in the right places, of the right tenure mix and for the right price. This is particularly pertinent given that research conducted by campaigning charity Shelter has estimated that as little as 1% of homes with 2 or more bedrooms in the city are affordable for couples with children on average incomes. The supply of affordable housing is also likely to worsened given current policies surrounding social housing.
Plans to plug this shortage have historically been hugely contested as demonstrated in opposition to the council’s now withdrawn local plan. Such hostility has been a frequent feature of local politics, particularly in the villages surrounding the city where residents and local politicians have objected to building on the green belt, new sites for travellers, and the loosely defined notion that development will change the character of the city. Therefore that which makes York an attractive place to live is also that which is used to mount opposition to building the homes needed to meet an increasing population.
In understanding the issues in York it is also important to recognise that the cost of housing is only one aspect of unaffordability. Whilst property and rental prices in York are higher than in much of the rest of Yorkshire this is not necessarily matched by pay. The city has been fortunate to have maintained high rates of employment but median earnings for jobs in the city are comparable with than the regional average. So whilst York may have a property market more in common with southern regions its labour market does not necessarily compete.
For those on particularly low incomes the problem is greater. The full impact that housing benefit has in acting as a buffer against poverty, as found by colleagues at the Centre for Housing Policy in work conducted for Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is limited given the way in which local housing allowance is calculated. York’s recently retired MP Hugh Bayley observed on multiple occasions that LHA rates are calculated with respect to rental sub-markets, which include the much more affordable Tadcaster, Selby, Malton and Barlby, average rents are deemed to be lower than they are in reality resulting in low rates of being paid to low income tenants.
The way forward?
Municipalities in other European countries have greater powers to acquire land and direct development compared to local authorities in the UK, but we need strong civic leadership to deliver the new homes and infrastructure we need to support them. Other areas like Cambridge have recognised that economic growth is tied to the provision of new homes and have worked across local authorities to plan how those homes, roads, transport, schools etc. will be delivered. Often providing transport and schools first so existing residents are not adversely affected. We also need a range of housing providers to build quality places–including housing associations, small firms and self-builders- and cannot rely solely on the large housebuilders. Other local authorities across the country are taking the lead and acting as developers themselves to ensure that homes are actually built out of the type required.
Failure to grasp that York needs more homes will lead lower-income and younger people out of the city changing its character and raising questions around urban justice. What’s more this may make the city a less attractive place for those whose jobs are essential to industries, such as tourism, which contribute to the economic life of the city but which are paid at a level which may make accessing housing a challenge.
Darren Baxter and Alison Wallace
Centre for Housing Policy, University of York