A Midsomer Murder?
01 August 2016 - Rosemary French
A new government inevitably brings new ideas, plans and regulations. New ministers just love change. Out with the old, in with the new! Can we really expect that this government will be any different? When we return from the summer break, during which Britain now seems to close down for the whole month of August, I am anxious about what will greet us on our return.
For example, that thorny issue of housing. The 2010 Coalition ditched the Regional Plans, which had been many years in development and which had at last achieved agreement from councils. But the Coalition introduced localism and the ‘duty to cooperate’ across council boundaries. The Ministers obviously thought that if they delegated those difficult ‘vote losing’ decisions to agree housing numbers at a local level that sensible numbers would be agreed. Indeed, the theory was that councils and boroughs could be trusted to produce Local Plans that meet current and forecast housing needs. However, six years later, after countless rejected Local Plans and largely nimby led neighbourhood plans we are no further ahead. Indeed, the country and the South East in particular has fallen even further behind than ever. We just do not have enough housing planned to meet current needs, never mind future needs. And the absence of Local Plans means it is a free for all for developers to submit planning proposals almost wherever they like. And then we hear that many councils cannot afford to defend appeals because they are strapped for funds.
So Cameron’s Ministers got fed up and the government announced much heralded planning reform. But much of that reform is heavy handed, better for the North than the South and definitely not thought through in terms of employment land needs. We had already been struggling with Planning Development Rights (PDR) which has been converting offices into housing without planning permission required, and we had just learned that had been extended to warehousing. But now, our industrial estates are at risk with the announcement that the government will sweep aside powers to prevent local councils from blocking housing projects on brownfield sites. Many people think that such hives of activity and clusters of light industrial units are ripe for ‘picture perfect’ housing. After all who wants a goods lorry passing by when it could be a dozen gas guzzling 4X4’s? Much more Home Counties!
In my own Surrey village, a London based property developer has cold heartedly cleared an industrial estate of active occupants and submitted an application for housing. The council refused it, worried about loss of employment land and, of course, now it is going to an expensive appeal. The council is cash strapped but forced to defend itself. But it has no Local Plan, what is its defence? If it loses, what are we left with? Even worse traffic congestion as many more people have to leave the village every day to work because there is no longer any work in the area and neither is there public transport to get them there? A commuter community with a dying High Street because it used to rely on weekday trade from the many businesses in the industrial estate? The London developer will effectively have carried out the perfect murder of a balanced rural community where people actually lived and worked. Please, Theresa May, use some of your well known common sense and investigate this chaotic situation. Not just in my village but throughout the South East.
Rosemary French OBE – Executive Director of the Gatwick Diamond Initiative
First published in South East Business Magazine August 2016