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What exactly is affordable anyway?

And nothing really rocks
And nothing really rolls
And nothing’s ever worth the cost.

There’s a bit of a hoo-hah in my local area over some development that has been granted permission with a smaller percentage of ‘affordable’ housing than was initially thought.

Basically, the council said they would allow development on the area so long as 25% of the homes were deemed to be affordable. Now planning has been granted it seems as though only 12% of them will qualify.

Anyways, it got me thinking about a conversation that the BMF’s Brett Amphlett and I had a while ago where we were throwing a few ideas around, one of them being “just what is an affordable home anyway?” Is it a home that someone on a low income can afford to purchase in the first place? Is it one that someone on a low income can afford to run whilst leaving enough pennies over for general living? Or is it one that a developer can afford to build and sell without damaging his profit margin?

There seems to be a worrying juxtaposition of two things.

1. a property that is cheap to buy but is poorly insulated – draughty – a bit dilapidated – has an old inefficient heating & hot water system – and gas & electricity bills and water are astronomical

2. well-insulated premises with modern boiler & heating controls – perhaps underfloor heating via renewable source – efficient water-saving bathroom & kitchen products – that costs you little to run but which might be more expensive on paper to purchase in the first place.

I think we could also add into that mix a third option – a house that the Government has decreed shall not be required to meet certain energy efficiency standards in order that it be “cheap” enough to allow first time buyers to purchase it. Or, to put it another, maybe more cynical way, to ensure that it is so cheap to build that the developers will flock to build this style of housing instead of other, less first-time-buyer-friendly types .

I’ve written before in this blog about the question whether ’tis nobler to build a lot of cheaper housing in order to get people onto the housing ladder from the bottom rung or to build a better quality house that won’t bankrupt the occupants in terms of running costs. The answer of course, is that, in terms of the bigger picture, it is far, far better to have people living in affordable comfort than affordable penury.

There was a news story a while back about some housing association tenants who were struggling to pay astronomical electricity bills because the air source heat pumps that the estate had been built with were running full blast all day. I can’t remember now if it was because the pumps had been badly installed or that the people were using them the wrong way, but these bills were ginormous. The tenants were aggrieved, claiming they had been mis-lead into believing that the heat pumps, being a renewable energy product, (the installation of which, no doubt, got the housing association some nice RHI rebates) would automatically reduce their bills to almost nothing.

Affordable housing, surely, has to mean housing that people can afford to heat, can afford to live in. You also hear of people, usually elderly, who only ever use a couple of rooms because they can’t afford to heat the whole house.

It seems wrong that the Government wants to reduce the quality of the housing – for that is what cutting the Zero Carbon requirements amount to – to hit some random target that it has come up with for getting people onto the bottom of the housing ladder. The thing about fuel poverty is that it can apply to people living in houses that you really wouldn’t associate with the word ‘poor’.

Affordable housing means just that – something that people can afford to build, to buy and to live in. Surely we can come up with something that really works for everyone in the chain?

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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