OPINION: North Devon homes 'more beautiful' at Christmas than ever

Huge crowds gather in South Molton square for the annual Christmas lights event. Picture: SMTC

Huge crowds gather in South Molton square for the annual Christmas lights event. Picture: SMTC - Credit: Archant

I believe that our towns and villages in North Devon are getting more beautifully and tastefully decorated for Christmas every year. 

I love to attend the Christmas lights switch on in my town centre and soak up the atmosphere. It is a delight to see that many of my neighbours really make an effort to brighten up the short dark days with their wonderful light displays. 

One or two even provide an opportunity to give to charity from appreciative visitors and families who bring their children to enjoy the spectacle. Nativity scenes, Father Christmas’s, reindeers, stars and flashing lights adorn so many homes and remind us of the joy and celebrations of the Christmas season. The area of South Molton where I live has often been nicknamed ‘twinkle town’ because of the amazing displays. 

But it has been a difficult year for many, not just because of the Covid pandemic but also because of difficulties regarding having a place which can be called home. With hundreds on the North Devon waiting list to get a home to rent, it reminds me of the first Christmas when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem for the census and there was no accommodation available apart from a stable. It wasn’t exactly a hygienic setting for the birth of a new child. Over two thousand years later and we are still struggling to provide housing for everyone. Gone are the days of council housing as they were removed from council control by a Conservative government. 

North Devon Council is, however, within our limited powers as a local authority trying to help. We have set up a panel which includes councillors and officers from North Devon Council's Housing, Planning and Regeneration teams to maximize what we can do. We have been meeting with representatives from Homes England, Encompass South West, the North Devon and Torridge Housing Crisis Group, Freedom Community Alliance, North Devon Homes - plus letting agencies and two large employers in the district to understand the extent of the problem. 

Following these meetings and discussions a ten-point plan has been drawn up to try to contribute even more to addressing what many are terming the housing crisis. The recommendations include endeavouring to bring more empty homes back into use. Obviously, there will always be some houses empty as they are on the market for sale or are being renovated but there are some properties that have been empty for some time. These long-term empty properties are the ones that will be targeted. Already there has been success in this area as the number of empty properties in North Devon reduced from 689 in October 2020 to 454 in October 2021. 

There is a shortage of key work accommodation which is making it difficult for some companies to attract personnel with the skills they need. NDC is looking to work with partners to address this issue. One way being encouraged is the use of Community Land Trusts to boost the supply of affordable housing. Working with the community in areas of high need will hopefully result in the delivery of badly needed houses in the right areas. 

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Often the key with CLT’s is finding suitable land for constructing the affordables. We need more housing options particularly in our coastal areas including Ilfracombe where house prices have risen dramatically in the past twelve months. It is very frustrating that many affordable houses have not been built because developers have successfully challenged the viability of their schemes when asked to provide 30% affordables. The planning department will be taking a tougher line regarding this and is also endeavouring to improve the process for dealing with planning applications. 

As a council we are striving to seek ways to improve home energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty, further enhance the council's homelessness prevention service and provide more suitable and affordable temporary accommodation. 

I hope you all have an enjoyable family Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

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