Minister for Housing and Communities, Deputy David Warr
As I write this blog, 2024 is still new, a large blank canvas on which humanity is yet to make its mark.
It’s time now to reflect on the tumult that was 2023, a year that in my view saw a steadying of the ship here in Jersey.
As a small Island jurisdiction, we do get buffeted by global events that are way out of our control.
The Bank of England’s decision to increase interest rates by an unprecedented 14 times over the past two years. Inflation running into double digits earlier this year from a near zero base in 2020 and wars in Ukraine and Palestine have created turmoil that has impacted on our society. This alongside the shadow of COVID and Brexit.
In the relatively short time that I have been Housing Minister, the housing “crisis” that I started with is completely different to the one we are experiencing today.
When I took over, house prices were increasing at unsustainable rates fuelled by low interest rates and effectively the commodification of a home. Today, higher interest rates has brought the market to a shuddering halt without to date making homes any more “affordable”.
Access to a secure home has never been more challenging so my main objective of 2023 has been to try and change that.
I published a “road map” for access to social rented housing recognising that those in rental stress in the private sector should be given an opportunity to rent in the social rented sector where rents are 80% of that of the equivalent in the private sector.
There have been two main barriers to accessing social rented housing, the first was that income thresholds were set too low and the second was around age. That has now changed significantly with the final piece of the jigsaw seeing the age limit dropping to 25 in 2024.
I have been able to do this because of the Andium Homes incredible build programme which is delivering homes for Islanders right now. I had the privilege of officially opening their Edinburgh House development only a few weeks ago – a truly exciting project.
Soon, we will see the official opening of the Cyril Le Marquand development with the Limes, Northern Quarter and Mayfair sites to follow. I believe it will enable us to rethink the part played by Andium in the housing market, an opportunity I want to grasp with both hands.
Affordability, though, is still a huge challenge for those on average or below average incomes. Whilst I appreciate some will never be able to own their own home or maybe don’t want to, others do want that opportunity.
Throughout the summer last year, my team developed the “First Step” scheme, this a “shared equity” offer that goes significantly further than the “Homebuy” Andium product. Again, it recognises that huge gulf in affordability experienced by many. Although this is a pilot scheme that will help around 50 families in the first quarter of 2024, I have high hopes that this is a way for some who thought they may never have a home of their own to make that first move.
Security of tenure is a big theme for me. We are currently in the process of publishing the results of a major consultation around updating the Residential Tenancy Law, this will I hope lead to the creation of a Housing tribunal service that will give greater protections to both tenants and landlords.
Finally, we need to make better use of our built environment to stop any further encroachment of our countryside. Although the numbers aren’t as big as was first thought, we still have too many vacant homes.
It really is not fair that some in our society can barely put a roof over their head whilst others can afford the luxury of leaving homes unoccupied. This is a very complex issue. We already have nearly 300 homes reported to us. It’s an issue I want to make further progress on in 2024.
Talking of 2024, a significant piece of work that needs to be developed is that of “right sizing”.
Finding homes for Islanders whose families have flown the nest and who are today living in expensive to maintain properties from which they would like to move. It’s another complex topic and will need careful handling. I recognise that many who would like to move don’t want to leave their parish, if possible. Others are quite happy to stay where they are. I see Government as a facilitator in this area, recognising that moving from a lifetime home understandably could be an emotional experience.
Briefly, I want to mention something that’s really stood out to me in 2023, and that’s meeting people face to face, whether that engagement has been at the Council of Ministers parish roadshows or through charities and organisations; it’s valuable and thought provoking and something I want to continue in 2024.
Our changing demographics and the desire to ensure our young people see a future in the Island means that I and my team will need to think long and hard on future policy initiatives.
Of course, we cannot supply homes for islanders without a smooth planning process. The most recent publication of the Improvement Plan update for Planning Services earlier this month shows that there has been a welcome net increase in the number of residential units approved; last year, 615 were approved compared to 289 in 2022.
I feel there are exciting prospects ahead and look forward to 2024 with renewed enthusiasm, where Housing – and specifically – delivering more homes for islanders – features as one of the Council Of Ministers’ top five priorities for the year.