Planning laws are undermining attempts to tackle the issue of second homes in Whitby - Andy Brown

You have to hand it to the Town Council in Whitby. They have got a good grasp of the needs of the people who live and work in their community. Many of the most popular visitor destinations in Yorkshire are suffering from a very simple problem.

Tourists can usually pay more for accommodation than locals. An affordable second home for visitors can be way beyond the price that anyone working in the area can afford to pay for their first one.

Buying or renting on local salaries is incredibly difficult and the standard of housing on offer to those who have lived in the area their whole life or who want to work there can be very low.

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So the Town Council in Whitby has proposed that every new house built in their area should be a council house. Which would lay the foundations for a serious change in the opportunities for local people in their community and help stop the exodus of talented young people. Good quality affordable housing with dependable tenancies seems an exceptionally sensible way of helping people find a good home.

The skyline of Whitby, which has been grappling with the issue of second homes pricing out local people. PIC: James HardistyThe skyline of Whitby, which has been grappling with the issue of second homes pricing out local people. PIC: James Hardisty
The skyline of Whitby, which has been grappling with the issue of second homes pricing out local people. PIC: James Hardisty

Unfortunately what is sensible rarely aligns closely with planning laws and government legislation. North Yorkshire Council were quick to inform the press that such a move would go against the local plan for development.

Which raises the interesting question of how did a plan that is meant to be local get to be agreed if it delivers little of what the local representatives think they need?

The answer lies in the complex process of how planning works. The local plan for development isn’t something that is thought up by local councillors who are free to come up with policies that will actually work.

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It is a document written within guidelines and policies set nationally and then subject to challenge by some highly paid professional lobbyists working for developers.

The consequence is that in many parts of Yorkshire you can find green field sites and suburban communities where hundreds of new homes are going up that the locals don’t like. Whilst down the road in places like Bradford some wonderful old buildings are suffering from such decay and neglect that they are unoccupied.

The focus in almost all local plans has been on what to build with little or no attention to what to renovate or improve. That is because the rules were written with heavy input from house builders who contribute heavily to political parties that have the ultimate control over writing policy.

There is little to stop a building developer from giving some of their own money to a political party. And little to stop those who pay the piper from calling the tune.

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We have heard much in recent years about levelling up. What has been happening in many parts of our area is the exact opposite. Attractive green field areas where housing can easily be sold are being developed very rapidly. The hard work of renovation is being neglected. Shiny new out of town shopping centres or online retail warehouses get built whilst High Streets decline into sad relics of once proud places.

Even when a council owns its own land and is determined to use it to develop more affordable housing for local people, national law works to prevent them from doing so. The right to buy a council house comes with a guaranteed discount.

The consequence of that discount is that your local council could borrow money to build a useful asset and then rent it out to cover the cost of the loan only to find that they were forced to sell it to the new resident for less than its worth. The council risks being left with an uncovered debt.

For decades it has become unfashionable to argue the need for council housing.

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Now we are staring at some of the consequences of decades of reluctance to use one of the most important tools for delivering the housing our communities really need.

Young people who are finding it increasingly difficult to buy their first home are being forced to take their chances with a private rental market that contains some wonderfully helpful landlords but also a severe shortage of supply and some over-priced low quality housing that the tenant is ejected from if they dare to ask for repairs.

In such a situation the chance to rent a good quality council house from a landlord that could be trusted would be a godsend.

It has taken decades to move from a situation where a council house was an option that was widely available into one where they are rarely available and there is often too little money to maintain them properly.

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It might take decades to fix that problem and build new ones. So perhaps we should start listening to people like Whitby Town Council and get on with the job of doing so instead of prioritising the needs of building developers who want to build what is most profitable where it is cheapest and most convenient.

Andy Brown is the Green Party councillor for Aire Valley in North Yorkshire.