Tuesday 12 August 2014

The pressures to build on green fields: CPRE: "new out-of-town developments are top of the list concerns"

Parallel to a new report out and comment from the Telegraph:
Futures Forum: The pressures to build on green fields: "the number of new homes is growing"

... the Western Morning News' editor-at-large finds himself equally unimpressed 
- as do the chairs of the Campaign to Protect Rural England in the SouthWest:

No, Minister - we do not want our fields to be full of houses

By Western Morning News | Posted: August 11, 2014

By Martin Hesp, WMN Editor-at-large, Twitter: @martinhesp

Plans for the Sherford development on farmland in the South Hams and Plymouth have been changed from 50% affordable housing to 17.5%. Right: Housing Minister Brandon Lewis, who was Pubs Minister until the recent reshuffle
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For years wind turbines have dominated the skyline of this region’s planning debates and debacles, and the long shadows they have thrown have been in-filled by the increasing swathe of large solar farms which are being plastered across the green and otherwise lovely landscape – but now, suddenly, new out-of-town housing developments are beginning to make headlines from one end of the peninsula to the other.

A rash of new greenfield housing estates and other developments can be seen sprouting up around towns and villages great and small, much to the huge concern of conservationists who care about the look of rural England, as well as existing residents who believe their local infrastructure can’t cope, and to the consternation of plain old-fashioned Nimbys who don’t want the view from their windows spoiling.

However, one Government minister claims the latter category is diminishing in number, fast. As reported in the WMN recently, new planning minister Brandon Lewis says the results of a recent survey suggest the “not-in-my-back-yard” lobby has been won-over by the New Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). He claims there’s been a “dramatic swing” in public opinion – almost half the population is now in favour of new housing in their area. This, according to Mr Brandon, had been prompted by the Government’s initiative to push sustainable development and give locals a greater say.

But the chairmen of all three county branches of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England in the South West could not disagree more… CPRE chairmen in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset have each told the Western Morning News that new out-of-town developments are now coming top of the list of worries and concerns appearing in their in-trays. 

“The Westcountry is a holiday destination and we are in the holiday season – these out-of-town developments going up all over the place are eroding the very thing we offer – which is a place people can enjoy to get away from it all,” says CPRE Devon chair, Penny Mills.

Her CPRE branch has produced a constantly updated online map where anyone can view the housing developments currently giving concern to members. “We are already expecting over 20,000 houses to be built in Devon, a high percentage on greenfield sites,” said Mrs Mills. “Just like renewable energy, new housing is another illustration of the Government encouraging inappropriate development in the countryside without any joined up strategy or thinking. It has loosened up the planning system with what could be catastrophic consequences – and at the same time local councils are paid the ‘new homes bonus’ which is for the new homes they approve, thereby creating a new bonanza for property developers.

“Insofar as ‘affordable housing’ is concerned, the situation is truly dire!” declared Mrs Mills, giving the example of a development in the Plymouth and South Hams area where a developer had initially promised to deliver around half the new homes they were building as affordable housing. “They achieved planning approval on this premise, but this percentage is now down to around 17.5% and likely to sink further as the build progresses. The reasons are clear. Developers apply for planning permission with an attractively high percentage of affordable housing, get planning approval and then conduct a ‘viability study’. This subsequent exercise then demonstrates there is no way that this percentage of affordable housing is financially feasible – they then drag down this percentage further by selling off each part of the site sequentially, thus keeping the prices and deliverability up and pushing real affordability out of sight.”

Mrs Mills ended her statement to the WMN by asking: “Why are we building on greenfield sites when there are so many brownfield sites?”

In line with this query, the CPRE has now launched a “crowdsourcing campaign” to discover and map brownfield sites across England that could be suitable for new homes. The organisation says there are thousands of empty sites in villages, towns and cities that could play host to such developments. People wishing to take part in the campaign, called WasteOfSpace, can nominate a brownfield site in their local area – for example an empty shop, disused post office, or abandoned factory – by tweeting or emailing photos which will be added to an interactive map online.

A CPRE report earlier this year found that the Government’s planning reforms were “unnecessarily damaging” the countryside and “failing to prioritise” the reuse of brownfield land and regeneration of urban areas. The report also revealed that only a quarter of local authorities proposed prioritising brownfield sites over greenfield because national planning policy does not give enough support for them to do so. The Government has since introduced incentives for developers to build 200,000 homes on brownfield land by 2020, but CPRE says this woefully underestimates the amount of land available.

Professor Chris Lewis, chairman of CPRE in Somerset, said building on prime agricultural land or other greenfield sites had become a “predominant feature” since the Government had introduced new planning policies.

“Developers have jumped in – they try to build houses where they can better make a profit,” Prof Lewis went on. “It goes without saying if you build in a field you don’t have to pay so much for clearance and preparation as you would on a brownfield site. It’s much cheaper to build outside a lovely village rather than, say, in the centre of Yeovil. So what is happening is that small towns or villages – which may typically have 100 houses – could, over the next 20 years, see well over 200 or 300 houses. The problem is that the builders are developers who don’t want to build affordable homes. In my own town there’s a developer who says he cannot make a profit if he builds 1-in-100 as an affordable home.”

Orlando Kimber, chairman of CPRE in Cornwall, echoed these views: “The planning framework has been through review recently, but is loosely worded and, while it calls for localism, basically the numbers are still set by Westminster. It looks good as an argument for the economy. They say: ‘This is going to create jobs’. But the reality is, when the house is built no one is working on it any more – so we think that argument pretty specious.

“The NPPF, to put it into slang, is a charter for developers,” said Mr Kimber. “It’s not so much about Local Plans as it is a lack of genuine confidence in local councillors to be able to stand up and say this is what people in Cornwall need. If Westminster says – we need 50,000 houses for Cornwall – the councillors agree because of something called the Community Infrastructure Levy. This means the local council gets, say, £1,600 per new house on average – so the councils go: ‘Hmmm – we’ve been told 50,000 new homes, so how much is that? That looks very good indeed, because we are short of money’.

“I don’t want this to sound like a conspiracy theory,” said Mr Kimber. “But what we do have in Cornwall is the fact that the council had a £288 million deficit three years ago. It happens to be that the number coincides exactly with the Community Infrastructure Levy figure – which seemed to be an extraordinary coincidence. In Cornwall the strategy is that development should only occur on the edge of towns and increase the density when the greatest respect has been shown to the environment and the integrity of the community – but when it comes down to it they’ve done whatever developers have wanted.

“The CPRE comes at it like this – we need to find brownfield sites first,” added Mr Kimber. “This is incredibly important in Cornwall because we have five million people come here on holiday – not to look at housing estates – but to look at rural bliss.

“We need a more democratic planning process – people are divorced from planning – which is why neighbourhood plans are such a brilliant idea. And certainly, in building design, we need stuff that’s well designed and which fits the local vernacular and the not the normal carbuncles we see being created all over the place in Cornwall.

“I live near Bodmin – how can you think about building new houses with no infrastructure and no jobs in this area? Their idea is that if you build houses, the jobs will come – but it doesn’t work like that.”

It seems Brandon Lewis’s belief that citizens are now happy and at one with the way planning matters are dealt with could be nothing more than wishful thinking. A great many Westcountry residents see the “developer’s charter” as something that lines the pockets of the few while leaving fast-changing 
communities with existing infrastructures that cannot possibly cope.

Others, far from being Nimbys, are wondering why the region’s precious open countryside – which fuels tourism, the South West’s biggest income driver – is being treated with all the respect and regard planners used to give redundant Second World War aerodromes.

No, Minister - we do not want our fields to be full of houses | Western Morning News

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