‘PARTYGATE’, Covid-19 and now Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine has resulted in some important Government reports falling below the news radar. However, two shocking reports from the House of Lords on Meeting Housing Demand and the NAO’s report on Regulation of Private Renting, together with new figures published by the House of Commons Library on the make up of population by constituencies, show clearly that things must change if we are to build a fairer and more balanced society.

The House of Commons Library statistics show that Somerset over the past decade has steadily become a county of old men and women, and over the past decade more people in the age 50-59 bracket have also come to live in the county. The big problem though is that Somerset is not retaining young people. In 2020, the percentage of the population in Somerset aged between 20-29 was only 10.4% compared to 13.6% nationally, and Taunton Deane is even lower at just below 10%. It is easy to see why older people are attracted to Somerset with its pastoral landscape offering a variety of walks and other activities, and a flourishing arts scene. And it is easy to see why some people retire here, because, although prices are high, they are still lower than in the South East. Surely Somerset has the right job opportunities for young people, but high house prices are a major deterrent.

Homes in Britain are ridiculously overpriced due to a rigged housing market for over 40 years. The origins of the crisis were the right-to-buy-policies of the 1980s without allowing the proceeds to fund new council stock, and dismantling the Fair Rent Act. Since then the cost of buying a home has risen faster than wages, leaving many workers priced out of the market.

The House of Lords Built Environment Committee believes that all the £29 billion spent on Help-to-Buy schemes has been wasted, as it “inflates prices by more than its subsidy value in areas where it is needed most.” But the biggest scandal is that the taxpayer now subsidises private landlords through housing benefit to the tune of £22 billion a year. “The private rented sector is by far the most expensive, by far the lowest quality and by far the least popular. It is absolutely the worst possible tenure for almost everybody in it.” The National Audit Office “estimated 23% of private rented homes are classified as non-decent...(and) 13% have at least one serious hazard.”

The NAO also stated that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities “does not have a sufficient understanding of the causes and impacts of tenant experiences meaning it cannot provide tailored guidance and support to those who need it most.” The waste of public money and the impact on so many people’s lives is a scandal.

The Built Environment Committee asked “the Government to reform Right to Buy to enable replenishment of social housing stock. We call on the Government to allocate more funding for affordable homes for social or affordable rent.” I agree that social and affordable housing must be the priority, and now we do have the technology with factory built modular construction to give people excellent homes, which save residents up to 50% in energy. But I would also go further.

Today, large developers are “gaming” the planning system. More than one million homes already have received planning permission in England, but developers prefer to cherry pick sites. They then maximise profits by wriggling out of promised infrastructure and affordable homes obligations. I believe we must now change the National Planning Policy Framework to be sceptical of new developments except where the developer can demonstrate that the homes will be exemplars of energy efficiency, have a high percentage of affordable homes and enhance local distinctiveness. This new approach would be a start to “levelling up” and giving Somerset a more balanced future.

David Lausen