Are there any of the mass new builds that actually enhance an area, that actually does the job that it was intended for – house people on the housing lists or on low incomes in good decent houses?
If there are I haven’t found any yet. In the past we could build towns. We built good, decent houses which added to an area rather than ruined it. We built so that people could live near their work, that there were shops and squares and green spaces, it doesn’t seem that hard to do, but somehow building now, means giving private companies who are only interested in profit, the right to build our towns and our villages and our cities.
The idea of tackling the housing crisis by offering private companies the chance to make money from building market housing, if they guaranteed to also build cheaper houses, was not a bad idea, but its not working. By giving the developers so many ways of getting out of their responsibilities, the government has created a situation where developers find it very easy to wriggle out of their affordable housing quota and their infrastructural contributions.
So in Totnes for example, where planning permission was given for 40% affordable, the developer has whittled it down to 10%, taking the council to court when they tried to push the developer to build more. There are only 423 affordable homes built in the South Hams, out of the thousands of houses going up.
The pattern of building now is to tack huge housing estates on to existing cities, towns and villages. Urban creep. Piling huge numbers of buildings on to the sides of towns with little thought of the aesthetics, of employment, of the local habitat, of infrastructure is ridiculous and very damaging.
I’ve been to a lot of new housing estates and have only seen discontent and upset. Local people find their quality of life damaged, their environment damaged and the beauty of their surroundings damaged. The only houses the developers are trying to make look nice are those they intend to sell on the second home market for a large amount of money. And when I say look nice, I don’t mean fit into the local area or improve the local area, but ones with large and fancy bathrooms, large and fancy kitchens, houses that are the blueprint of houses built all over the country with no consideration for local materials or local style. Thus the flats going up along the Dart, the £370,000 2 bed flats, are sold with a list of their fancy fittings and pictures of how pretty Totnes was, before they started building.
Where is the desire to improve a place or build sustainably? To be fair to the developers that’s not their brief. The only good developments I’ve found are those which come from community development. When I say good, I mean, ones which local people are happy with, are not built on flood plains, do not congest local roads, do not destroy the countryside. Houses like those going up near Broadhempston, which are built by local people, out of local materials, are genuinely affordable and enhance the look of the place. Local people are delighted and proud of these houses. There are only six of them, but it shows it can be done. The government unfortunately though, sees building as the answer to its economic woes and as a local councillor said to me, ‘its a juggernaut thats almost impossible to turn round’.
We can do our best though, we can keep challenging and questioning, we should not just roll over when developers start bullying. The council turned down a proposal to build an enormous estate of 240 houses on the edge of Dartmouth because it did not provide enough affordable housing. The developer is suing, but hopefully the council will win this case. The only reason that you would build those houses near Dartmouth, which effectively joins it to nearby Stoke Fleming in urban creep, is to sell second homes with views of the sea. People buy down here because they like the countryside and the way of life, why therefore ruin what you’ve come to see, by buying a house that contributes to its destruction. It happens everywhere where a government has opened the doors to developers, where governments have decided to sell off their assets – the Spanish coast has suffered enormously from uncontrolled building, Ireland is now in the process of knocking down many of the thousands and thousands of bungalows it allowed to be built all over its countryside in a recent orgy of building. There are the examples to be found all over the world, its all about companies and people making a lot of money at the country’s expense, about exploitation and greed and its never good.