This week Craig Borland reacts to Taylor Wimpey’s housing proposals for Helensburgh Golf Club – specifically the plan to make 25 per cent of the development available to housing association tenants for social rent...


QUESTION: what exactly is an “affordable” home?

Answer: well, it depends. Particularly, it depends on two things: where you are, and who you’re asking.

Any major new housing development in Argyll and Bute – and “major” in this case means eight or more houses – is legally required to have an “affordable element” comprising at least one quarter of the total.

But that can take several forms. At the Duchess Gait development in Helensburgh, by Persimmon Homes, it meant homes sold on the market for less than what was deemed to be the market value.

In other areas, it can mean “shared equity”, where a buyer pays for a majority share, and the rest is topped up, usually by the government, with the householder retaining the title on the property and, hopefully, buying up the government share as the years go by and their income goes up.

And elsewhere, it means houses that will not be available to buy at all, but will be owned and/or managed by a registered social landlord – what you or I would call a housing association – and rented out at an acceptable level. All are deemed “affordable” under current Scottish housing legislation.

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At Taylor Wimpey’s proposed development at Helensburgh Golf Club, the “affordable element” – if planning permission is granted – will take the third of those forms, with 25 per cent of the 300 (approximately) homes being owned by Dunbritton Housing Association and available for social rent.

Being a home owner is not as common as it used to be. Data on house prices varies depending on where you look, but a survey in 2019 found that average house prices in Scotland had trebled in the space of 20 years – from less than £50,000 to more than £150,000 – while average earnings rose by only 77 per cent in the same time, making it even harder for young people to save for a deposit.

Some people will like the short-term flexibility of renting, I don't doubt that. Yet I do still think young people in their 20s, 30s and even early 40s, on the whole, would still like to own their own home; it’s just that the gap between house prices and wages means they’ve pretty much given up on ever doing so.

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And I haven't just made that up off the top of my head. Here is a sample of the comments I got from my Clyde Weekly Press colleagues this week when I asked about their home-owning aspirations...

"I'm a private renter and the biggest obstacle is I don't earn enough to buy property. So I've wasted 18 years on rent to other people where now I could probably own somewhere outright."

"I promised myself that I would look into buying a home after a graduated university last year, but as Covid hit so did the housing market. Homes in reasonable areas that would have been in my price range exceeded my budget and made it no longer affordable for first-time buyers."

"We also privately rent our home. Of course we would like to be homeowners, but we'd also like to have a timeshare in Barbados and two Ferraris in the drive. I actually had a look at the cost of a house in Alder Gate in Helensburgh a week or two ago and the cost doesn't begin to fall within our means. Just to put down a deposit we'd need to work, without spending a penny on anything else, for about a year."

"Some of us are just in limbo. Not paid enough to buy but paid too much for social housing."

"I must admit I'm relying pretty heavily on my partner getting a decent teacher's job for us to be able to live comfortably if we ever manage to get a house together. Even now we need at least a 15 per cent deposit to get anything, which is massive."

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Okay, so that's the kind of deeply unscientific survey that would never get me a job at any professional polling company. But as quick surveys of opinion go, it gives you a rough idea of the situation that at least some young, aspirational professionals find themselves in.

For most people, I suspect, owning your own home is not about “getting a foothold on the property ladder” and buying and selling at an ever larger profit. It’s about having a roof over your head that you can say is yours, one that you can adapt to meet the needs of your own life – and yes, one that is your responsibility to sort when things go wrong.

Designating social housing for rent as “affordable” won’t help to change that – though that is not to criticise Taylor Wimpey, who clearly have chosen the path that best suits the business model for their golf club plans, and which is entirely acceptable under housing legislation in Scotland as it currently stands. Nor is it to criticise Dunbritton, who I'm quite sure will run the homes for which they're responsible – should planning permission be secured, of course – in their usual professional manner.

But a ladder in which everyone on it is clustered towards the top, and which has no-one stepping on to the first few rungs to provide some form of stability at the other end, surely isn't sensible. So perhaps it’s time to have a long and careful look at whether homes that qualify as “affordable”, yet cannot actually be bought by the people living in them, is really sustainable in the long run.

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