Guernsey’s housing crisis – what next?

As a plan for solving the housing crisis begins to take shape, Deputy Nick Moakes explains why he believes the focus should not be restricted to social housing

WE ARE clearly in the middle of a housing crisis – there just aren’t enough homes to meet demand. It has got to the point where people are leaving the island and businesses are struggling to recruit staff, partly because of the lack of affordable housing. This is unsustainable.

We have seen various solutions proposed. I am a big supporter of revitalising our town centres by repurposing unused shops and offices. This would transform our ‘retail centric’ town centres into ‘live, work and play’ centres by mixing up retail, residential and leisure. This is starting to happen, but it will take time.

I also like the idea of using surplus States buildings and land and there is a good case for looking at modular solutions which can be erected in a matter of days.

Scrapping the GP11 affordable housing policy is another suggestion put forward on the basis that it has not delivered the social housing it was meant to. In fact, it has almost certainly contributed to the housing crisis by stopping larger developments from going ahead.

There are people who would welcome the scrapping of GP11 and others who are firmly against it. At the last States meeting I suggested a compromise. Suspend it and see if that leads to more homes being built.

In June 2021, a new sub-committee was formed to investigate possible short- and medium-term solutions to the housing crisis. The Housing Action Group has not come forward with any proposals to date, but it is due to report back to the States in March.

So, lots of talk but not a great deal of action.

Then, out of the blue, a few week ago Deputy Mahoney announced proposals to build new homes on not one, not two, but three States-owned sites.

The first is Castel Hospital, where he wants to build circa 90 new family homes with between three and five bedrooms. The second is on the King Edward VII site, where he hopes to build a 60-bed care home or retirement village. The third is at the PEH, where he proposes to build up to 150 apartments for nurses.

The idea is clever because it addresses the housing crisis on several fronts. Ninety new family homes could mean that young families currently living in flats or small houses will be able to upsize into larger family homes, freeing up much-needed starter homes and flats for others. Creating a new care home or retirement village will allow older residents to move into something more suitable, again freeing up much-needed housing. Likewise developing 150 purpose-built apartments for nurses, right next to the PEH, will free up more private accommodation and help us to retain and attract nurses. So, in summary, this proposal could lead to somewhere near 300 additional properties being made available. It won’t solve the crisis, but it will certainly help.

And that still leaves other sites such as the Belgrave and Kenilworth vineries, both of which will be used to build social housing. According to the GHA, Fontaine Vinery could take up to 313 new homes and Kenilworth circa 130 new homes. So that is potentially another 443 ‘affordable’ homes. Taken together, these sites could deliver circa 700+ new homes. Now, that might well solve the housing crisis and it would certainly take some of the heat out of the housing market. And let’s not forget Leale’s Yard, a site that will, one day, transform the Bridge.

So, a plan does now seem to be taking shape.

But not everyone is happy. Some people believe that the way to solve the housing crisis is to massively expand social housing and focus on building one or two bedroom flats and houses. Others, like me, disagree.

Let me try and explain why.

First of all, I believe that part of the problem is the definition of ‘affordable housing’.

‘Affordable housing means property that’s reserved for certain groups of people who cannot afford to rent or buy property on the private market’ (source: gov.gg website).

Does this mean that affordable housing can only be social housing and, if so, why? Affordable housing should be available across both the social housing and private sectors.

If you endorse the idea that affordable housing can only be provided through social housing, you are storing up problems for the future. For example, if you focus on social housing and not private housing, the costs of private housing will inevitably continue to rise, making it even more unaffordable. If that is allowed to happen, more and more people will be locked out of private housing. Inevitably, this will create a vicious circle where the only option becomes social housing.

The reality is that we need more of both if we want to solve the housing crisis. We also need to provide a broad range of housing types. If we only build one- and two-bedroom starter homes, we will not be addressing the wider housing crisis. What about young families who need larger homes, or older residents who want to downsize into more suitable accommodation? If these sections of our community have access to the right kind of accommodation, they will move, freeing up more properties.

And there is another issue. I have spoken to several people who needed social housing at some point in their lives but now feel trapped because their income and the amount that they can save is capped. Some have had to turn down pay rises or promotions because they would take them over the income cap. That is terrible.

While the Committee for Employment & Social Security recently suspended the income cap, it has done so only until the end of 2022. While this is a step in the right direction, people need to know what happens when the suspension ends. The savings cap also needs to be reviewed in light of house price inflation. If the savings cap prevents people from moving into private accommodation because they cannot build up a big enough nest egg, it not only inhibits people’s ambitions, it also means that the social housing that they live in cannot be reassigned to someone else in desperate need of a home.

Some people have said that Deputy Mahoney’s proposal to build 90 three-, four- and five-bedroom homes is wrong because we don’t need luxury or executive-style homes. Well, I suspect that these houses will be mainly three or four bedroom houses and I think that a family of two adults and two or three teenage children will consider a three or four-bedroom house a necessity rather than a luxury. And some people with larger families or dependants might actually need a five-bedroom house. Let’s also not forget that more and more people are now working from home so, whatever the size of house, one of those bedrooms might end up being used as a home office.

What kind of a society do we want to live in? One where the ‘nanny state’ decides who can live in what kind of property or one where there is a decent supply of housing, so we have a choice?

Another criticism is that some of these new homes might be built on fields around the chosen sites. I do not want to see Guernsey concreted over and I do not know how much States-owned green land is included within these proposals at this stage. Clearly, I would prefer to repurpose existing buildings or build on brownfield sites, but this will take time. And brownfield sites, while preferable, are either too small to make a real difference or are stuck in limbo, in part because GP11 makes them unviable.

So, we have a choice. We can accept that we have a housing crisis and that it will take years to build the homes that we need today. We can accept that young people will not be able to afford to rent or buy a home and that more and more people will move off the island because they can no longer afford to live here. Likewise, we can accept that we won’t be able to find people to fill the hundreds of job vacancies that currently exist – including key workers.

Alternatively, we can accept that things need to change. Suspend GP11 and/or accept that a very small amount of green land, ideally poor-quality agricultural land, might be needed to resolve the housing crisis so that we can build desperately needed new homes.

It is not an easy choice, but it is one that we need to make and quickly.

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