Guernsey Press

Is there really a housing shortage?

Horace Camp tries to get to the bottom of the apparent crisis.

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IM A very simple man with only a limited amount of formal education, having taken my last exam at the age of 17 in 1972. Which probably explains why I can’t get my head around our housing crisis.

However, in an attempt to get to the bottom of it I have channelled my inner Digard and, rather than just making stuff up as usual, I have actually done a little bit of research.

Properly prepared with a damp tea towel wrapped around my head, I delved into the Facts and Figures booklets issued by our own dear States of Guernsey. ‘Dear’ has two separate meanings – I leave it to you to decide which one I have in mind as I write this.

I thought I would focus on the past decade or so to keep things relevant. My natural proclivity is to cast my mind back to the late 1950s, which seems like yesterday, so I am covering yet more new ground today.

Over the last decade our population has grown by about 700 souls. Well there’s your answer then. No wonder there aren’t enough homes. Sorry folks, very short column today but issue already covered.

Hang on, I wonder if the number of homes has increased at all? Well knock me down with a feather, it has gone up by about 1,400. I know my maths is a bit rusty but I make that about one additional domestic property unit for every half a new person.

With a deep breath and firmly in the hope of a successful outcome, I tried a bit of long division and I seem to get to the conclusion that our average is 2.4 people per home.

On the face of it, we seem to be building twice as many new houses as we need, even with a massive margin for error. And though I don’t get out much these days, with the aid of medical intervention and big pharma I have managed four car rides this year so far. Double last year’s record. And blow me down, there are new builds everywhere.

I know my trips have been entirely confined to the lower parishes – I’m still not in the mindset to go any further from home yet and I expect the higher parishes are still a green and pleasant land.

But there are new houses everywhere. Every nook and cranny, back garden and little field is now home to a multitude of new houses of a common basic design we will no doubt come to love and which will be as recognisable as the houses of the 1930s as a new tranche of Guernsey property to add to farmhouses, villas and so forth.

So where is the problem? Are we really short of Domestic Property Units? As an aside, I must confess to loving the DPU term favoured by the States, our dear States – so much more clinical than ‘homes’.

Possibly the 700 extra people all live alone and we were 700 DPUs short at the start of the last decade. Could it be a proliferation of single millennials waiting for middle age before they settle down? Or a raft of pre-boomer divorcees who married young and only stayed together for the children? Or boomer widows and widowers learning how to live alone?

Certainly society has changed a lot and we no longer condone topping and tailing the kids in a single bed to make the accommodation fit the size of the family. Now we expect the size of family to dictate the size of accommodation.

Guernsey farmhouses are typically two up and two down affairs but in days gone by would have accommodated large families and household servants. Now, even with attic rooms, they are only for nuclear families.

I get that we use our DPUs less efficiently, that more people live alone and fewer homes have children. But we still have enough homes for 2.4 people to live in each (on average).

I am therefore still not convinced that we need to cover every green field left in the north with DPUs.

Could it be our biggest issue is that DPUs are too expensive for millennials to buy? And could it be that those millennials (other demographics exist) are already adequately housed in rented accommodation or in mum’s garage? If so, we don’t have a housing shortage – we just have the wrong housing mix between rental and owned and millennials need to partner up with a second salary (preferably finance or civil service) if they expect to leave the garage.

If this is indeed the case and we build a great tranche of new DPUs, 332 at Leale’s Yard for example, at an ‘affordable’ price (unlikely), which is nearly half of the build of the last 10 years, will we end up with a lot of vacant, older rental property in Town? And if we add all the other possible development sites, will we not see even more empty properties?

Developers seem keen to persuade our politicians to take action this day, but then of course they would. They make money out of new developments.

We must therefore approach this one with caution. I have never used as many question marks in a single column before, and I do like my question marks, because there is so much to question.

It gets even more complex when one of our major employers wants to provide reasonably priced, subsidised accommodation for employees recruited off-island. Neither this accommodation nor the subsidy would be offered to employees already resident on-island. Not only that, the employer wants to build them on a beautiful green valley which is perfect for growing the grass our dairy herd like munching.

Yes, the States of Guernsey is that employer and I understand we need key workers, but an employer needs to be fair to all its employees and there is somehow a whiff of unfairness about the proposition and a feeling that it doesn’t incentivise local residents to train for those key roles.

My last query is to wonder what Deputy Mahoney thinks the States should grow in its field by the Princess Elizabeth Hospital. He believes that growing grass is only for lower quality agricultural land. He questions why if the field is good land the States only grows grass on it.

Well, it may have escaped his notice that our principal agricultural industry is dairy farming. Dairy farms have cows. Cows eat grass.

If Deputy Mahoney really believes that fields growing grass is a sure sign they are better off developed, then I fear for the higher parishes where only the vast fields of wheat, barley, oats, oil seed rape and soy beans will be saved from the developers’ bulldozers.

Oh yes, that’s right – there is only grass as far as the eye can see because the fields of the higher parishes are all lower quality agricultural land by Deputy Mahoney’s definition.