Affordable housing in Much Wenlock

On Thursday, Shropshire Council’s Leader, Cllr Peter Nutting, attended Much Wenlock Town Council’s monthly meeting. When Peter advised me of his invitation from the mayor, he said that the Town Council had told him it wanted “to talk about potential housing in the town”.

This inevitably sparked my interest and I looked at the few papers that the Town Council had posted to its website ahead of the meeting. There was one headed “Affordable Housing” supporting an agenda item with the same title, described “To discuss and consider future opportunities to provide affordable housing for local people”. No author was shown. In due course, I was surprised to find that some Town Councillors were unaware that a guest speaker was expected. Five Town Councillors, including the mayor, who had apparently extended the invitation to Cllr Nutting, were absent from the meeting.

Peter covered topics including Shropshire Council’s social housing stock, its proposals to start building houses, and Community Infrastructure Levy.

As regards Shropshire Council’s plans to build houses, this topic is going before its Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. Peter covered off the main points, telling the six councilors who were present, along with an audience of around 25 local residents, that Shropshire Council was considering establishing a company to acquire, develop and manage homes. In other councils, such companies have been used to help address specific local housing supply issues or market deficiencies and to generate income to assist the parent authority to be more financially self-sufficient. Shropshire Council certainly needs the income.

It became quickly apparent to those present, that the purpose of inviting Cllr Nutting was to offer the  prospect of Shropshire Council-built homes as an alternative to the Town Council continuing to meet its obligations under the Much Wenlock Neighborhood Development Plan. With but just half of the Town Council present at the meeting, and only two of them having served during the gestation of the Neighbourhood Plan, there was no challenge to the assumption that the Town Council could  abdicate its responsibilities.

When my opportunity came to address the Town Council (“on Shropshire Council matters specifically relating to Much Wenlock”), I made the following points about the agenda paper.

The Town Council has a commitment to meet the aspirations of the Neighbourhood Plan to deliver affordable housing for local people. I said that the Town Council paper supporting item 9 was strewn with red herrings* and in parts was downright misleading.

Irrespective of Shropshire Council’s current housing company debate and Government statements, since 2014 Shropshire Council has, via its Arms Length Management Organisation (“ALMO”) (ST&RH), built 121 new homes with a further 20 on site.

There is continuing housing need due to local demand exceeding supply. The Town Council is committed to support the Neighbourhood Plan principles regardless of any grants that might be forthcoming. The £3,000 per property grant to the Town Council from the New Homes Bonus should be treated as a welcome addition to monies to enhance facilities in the town. It is therefore mischievous to claim that the source is not sustainable, because it has no bearing on the Town Council’s obligation. To state that the New Homes Bonus money is not guaranteed is clearly true but misleading. Any government grant, tax, subsidy or levy is subject to change from time to time. And if we did nothing because the future is not guaranteed – nothing would happen.

The paper’s “Financial implications” promise 25% of the Community Infrastructure Levy on any development over ten dwellings. This is untrue – Community Infrastructure Levy is not applicable on affordable housing.

The local “Community Benefit” – goes far wider than simply addressing housing need, because it helps to maintain a balanced community, and family cohesion, local services and the sustainability of those services in Much Wenlock.

The “Proposal – To support Shropshire Council as the leading responsibility [sic] for Affordable Housing Provision” is not clear, but in any event variation of the Neighbourhood Development Plan cannot and should not be altered without wide consultation and probably a statutory action.

In conclusion, I urged the Town Council to put its efforts into delivering all aspects of the Neighbourhood Plan rather than investing its energy in trying all means to avoid doing so.

Members of the public who were present have subsequently voiced their disquiet about the Town Council’s stance. One note of reassurance is that the Town Council agreed to meet Connexus, the “Registered Housing Provider” that delivered the Callaughtons Ash development, earlier this year. Hopefully, a more balanced view will be adopted then – although the invitation is not until the Town Council meets in January.

So, while Shropshire Council may well develop housing, and some of it may be low-cost, it is unlikely to deliver affordable social housing for local people in Much Wenlock in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the local housing need remains.

All of that said, I believe that Shropshire Council’s intended commitment to explore how it can deliver housing across the county is a good one, and I look forward to the initial findings assuming the Cabinet gives it a  green light on Wednesday.

* A red herring is to introduce an irrelevant issue into a discussion. The ‘red herring’ may either be  introduced intentionally, in order to confuse one’s opponent, or accidentally.