North Devon MP Selaine Saxby introduces affordable housing debate - UK Parliament
North Devon MP Selaine Saxby introduces affordable housing debate - UK Parliament

North Devon at risk of having ‘literal ghost towns and villages’

Joseph Bulmer

North Devon is at risk of having ‘literal ghost towns and villages’ on its coast by next winter says its MP as residents are seeing ‘homes and opportunities to live and work in their community ripped away from them by something like the Kansas twister’.

Conservative MP for North Devon Selaine Saxby made the Wizard of Oz reference as part of a Westminster Hall debate she introduced on the affordable housing crisis facing Devon and Cornwall.

Such debates take place in a committee room in the houses of parliament and are meant to be expressed in neutral terms. A government minister provides a response to the MP raising the issue.

For her motion, Ms Saxby said the housing problem is ‘particularly acute’ in North Devon and means ‘that there is virtually no housing available for local people, affordable or otherwise’.

She explained that property prices have soared in her constituency while at the same time there has been ‘a complete collapse of the private rental sector as landlords take advantage of the surge in domestic tourism during the pandemic’.

“Currently, Barnstaple, with a population of over 35,000, has just three private rentals available on Rightmove and 234 holiday lets on Airbnb.”

Ms Saxby mentioned a Braunton constituent, identified as Rachel, who said she had been given notice to move out of her home of 10 years so her landlord could use the property for holiday lets. She said that there was nothing available for her family nearby.

The MP referred to another North Devon resident who said the deposit she needed to buy a house has more than doubled in the past two years, meaning her savings are no longer enough to put her on the property ladder.

Ms Saxby pointed out that a government consultation on the registration of short-term holiday lets, announced last June, has yet to even start.

“I am struggling to convey is the urgency of the need for a solution”, she said.

The latest quarterly monitoring report from Devon Home Choice, a portal for finding council homes and housing association properties, testifies to Ms Saxby’s concerns. It shows 1,420 households in housing need in North Devon, a 50 per cent increase from three years ago.

Ms Saxby outlined her ambition for the issues she raised, saying: “I hope that we can say goodbye to the yellow brick road and that some affordable housing wizardry will be expedited.”

Other Devon MPs said the problem had reached a crisis point in their constituencies too.

Speaking at the debate Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport said: “The private rented sector in large parts of the south west has collapsed and we are experiencing market failure.

“There is a need for urgent intervention, which we have not seen in the past decade.”

Exeter’s Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said: “My local authority has a very good record at doing what it can to ensure the good provision of local social housing and affordable housing to rent, but it really is working against government policy all the time.”

He called for a re-evaluation of the criteria for ‘affordable’ homes to make them less prohibitively expensive and challenged the government to temporarily suspend its right-to-buy scheme to give local authorities more housing stock.

Tiverton and Honiton Conservative MP Neil Parish also recognised the crisis facing his area. He said that ‘Zed Pods’, small factory-built zero carbon homes that can be put up in unusual spaces, including hanging over car parks and garages, could be one way of addressing the housing crisis.

Such properties are currently being built in his constituency in Tiverton and Cullompton.

But although East Devon MP Simon Jupp has said he would happily live in a pod; they are not universally popular. When plans for them were put forward in Bristol in 2019 some residents described them as ‘pointless’, ‘disgusting’ and an ‘erosion of shared public space’.

Gary Streeter, Tory MP for South West Devon said: “Throughout my 30 years at Westminster, there has never been enough affordable housing to rent or buy to meet demand, and there probably never will be, especially in hotspots such as Devon and Cornwall.

“Because the area is such a delightful destination, as we have heard, many people seek to retire to our region, pushing prices high, often out of reach of local people.

He challenged the government about the ‘current gross distortion’ of the private rented in regions Devon and Cornwall and asked the housing minister if he was having discussions with the Treasury about a potential taxation policy on Airbnb.”

He also praised Ms Saxby for her efforts on this issue: “It is about time that government realised that one of the solutions to our energy problems in this country is to plug my honourable friend into the national grid. Her energy could power many homes over the coming months.”

Responding to the issues raised, housing minister Stuart Andrew said: “I believe that we are all in agreement that we need more affordable homes and that successive governments —of all colours, frankly—have fallen short of that goal.

“We have made it a fundamental part of our levelling-up agenda so that we can start to rectify that, recognising that it is in our national interest for every community in the country to have a strong supply of high-quality, sustainable housing.

“Where people live should not limit their access to that supply.”

He claimed the government is making progress, but added: “We know that we need to build more because, for a variety of reasons, supply has simply not kept up with demand in recent decades.”

He said the government is taking action to address the high number of second homes in the south west.

Nevertheless, he added the government ‘wholeheartedly supports responsible short-term letting’.

He continued: “We absolutely recognise the economic benefits that that can have in our favourite holiday hotspots, but the benefits should not be to the detriment of local communities.”

He said that Mr Bradshaw had made ‘interesting’ points, to which he would respond in writing.