Affordable housing threshold is raised

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Councillors this week conceded that planning demands on private developers to provide affordable housing in the region have been counter-productive.

Currently, these builders, if constructing five or more homes on a single site, have been expected to ensure, as a legally-binding condition of consent from Scottish Borders Council (SBC), that 25 per cent of them are affordable to people on modest incomes.

But this week, SBC’s quasijudicial planning committee agreed to raise that threshold to 17 units and to settle for commuted payments from developers wishing to build fewer properties.

The cash – levied at between £6,000 to £30,000 per required affordable unit, depending on location – will be used by the council and registered social landlords (RSLs) to fund new housing for rent, shared-equity deals or low-cost purchase.

The decision acknowledges the need to make housebuilding on smaller sites more economically viable to private sector developers.

And it recognises that, under the current planning policy regime, public and private providers are falling well short of meeting the established regional need for 268 affordable units per year. The local authority last year agreed to borrow more than £18million and form its own arms-length company to acquire sites, and work with private sector builders to deliver 100 new affordable homes a year.

But that still leaves a notable shortfall and on Monday the committee heard a report which suggested parts of the regional economy were barely out of recession.

“The restricted availability of affordable family housing is of particular concern as the gap between incomes and market house prices and rent levels continues to widen,” said forward planning manager Martin Wanless.

“The fragile and locationally-sensitive economic recovery continues to suppress the private housing market … this constrains the sites made available to RSLs through legal planning agreements, while the financial climate, along with limited funding available from the Scottish Government, means RSLs are finding it challenging to develop to the level required.”

After the meeting, planning committee chairman, Councillor Ron Smith, admitted: “The previous threshold often made it uneconomical for house builders to take on small sites due to the requirement for on-site affordable housing, while very small numbers of affordable homes in a development also tend to be less appealing to RSLs.

“As a result, some small sites suitable for housing development have remained undeveloped and have contributed nothing towards meeting housing need in the region.

“The hope now is that these small sites will be developed, and will contribute towards affordable housing through the commuted sums applied.

“The provision of affordable housing in the Borders is vital, and any way we can help provide more while providing a boost to local house builders is to be welcomed.”