The papers at the moment are full of grim warnings about the Green Belt. Seventy percent of new builds are planned in land within the Green Belt, very few of which are going to be affordable, none of which, I suspect are going to be well built or add anything to the landscape or to the lives of people who live there.
Our countryside is under threat is the general theme, but it is more than under threat, it is under attack. Already thousands of acres have been swallowed up by the relentless concrete sprawl, which pours without ceasing from a great army of machines and vehicles. Little towns are consumed under the weight of great new estates, built without thought or reason other than to make money for distant shareholders. Small towns like my one, a town that has survived much, yet still retained its character, its charm. A town, which miraculously, seems to have managed to keep enough of a mix of people to survive as more than just a retirement home, unlike nearby towns here in Devon. Its a good, interesting, functioning town, but its greatest drawback, we now realise is its beauty, its appeal. We have been noticed by the building industry.
The government has removed, as it loves to do, most of the restraints and red tape around the building industry. Once it was constrained – it could only sit and seethe and watch with growing frustration, the ongoing, unsullied life of the countryside, going about its business – all that desirable land, those beautiful views, those fields crying out for a few hundred second homes. Then Osborne listened to their cries. A few well placed lobbyists, the understanding that the ‘conservative’ part of the Conservative Party was on its way out and the plan was hatched. Its all been very cleverly done. The housing crisis was basically used as a smokescreen to hide the fact that the building industry was going to be used to prop up the economy. Its a short term solution of course, not much of a solution at all really. Its been used in so many other places and at the end fails, not until the land has been ruined of course, but at least a few people make a lot of money.
We don’t have a shortage of homes of course, what we have is a shortage of houses that people can actually buy. I was 35 when I bought my first house. The mortgage was three times that of my teacher’s salary. It was a stretch, but I coped and then of course, house prices soared; my little house became a valuable asset and when I sold it, the price was above the reach of a similar teacher in my area. This is the problem. If the government actually wanted to solve the housing crisis, they would put money into social housing, control land value tax and limit the amount of housing that investors from overseas can buy. But of course they don’t, Osborne has been caught on tape already, saying that he had no interest in social housing, it only breeds Labour supporters. At least that was honest. What isn’t honest is the ways they’ve gone about building the myth of housing need to cover up the fact that they are lobbing enormous amounts of our money to the building industry.
I went to look at Canary Wharf recently. It’s still an impressive sight, all jostling, shiny towers, cranes everywhere, but a little investigation revealed that many of the new skyscrapers, the residential ones at least, are left empty. Investors come in right at the beginning, when the ink on the architectural drawings is still wet and buy the whole build. A Malaysian firm builds the building, a Chinese consortium buys it and leaves it empty and they move on to the next. Its not just Asian investment of course, its international and why shouldn’t they? If they are allowed to use our buildings as gold bricks, then it seems reasonable that they should keep the value of their investment high. It makes sense to ensure that demand continues to outstrip supply and that the amount of houses available to the public is limited. Thousands of new builds are breaking the skyline in East London and yet this huge amount of building is yet to bring prices down. People move out of the centre because they can’t afford to live there and move to the outskirts, the outskirts get more expensive, so they move further out, dislodging the inhabitants there, who are moved even further out and so on and so on, the ripples continuing across the country. Our major city is hollowed out and people live in areas they don’t necessarily want to be in, finding themselves dependant on their cars and transport to get them back to the place where they have a job.
By the time the ripples get to Devon, they’ve changed slightly. These ripples are the people who have decided they no longer need to commute to the city, they are going to take early retirement, possibly work from home. They discover they can buy two houses in Devon for the price of their one in the South East and realise that they can fund their retirement/break through a buy to let. This has been the pattern of movement around us in South Devon recently. The new builds, which were of course spun to seem as if they would solve our local housing issues, have gone to people moving into the area to enjoy a bit of Devon sun. That’s fine of course, but is it really worth the damage to our countryside and to our town. These builds come with all sorts of assurances as to improvements in infrastructure – anything over 14 houses is supposed to trigger money for healthcare, transport, leisure, all sorts of things are promised. Local councillors talk grandly of new parks, new hospitals, but of course that doesn’t feed into the ultimate aim of all this building, which is to make money, so the government has cleverly inserted all sorts of get out of jail free cards, which the developers are only too happy to take on.
Viability studies are the worst culprit. S106 monies are promised before the build, at planning stage. Its all carefully worked out, the local council pauses, they know that this new build on the edge of AONB will severely impact local roads, local services, destroy a farmer’s land, restrict access to a town, but they might well run the risk of being sued if they say no and at least afterwards they can point to all the lovely benefits – all that money coming in to improve the swimming pool. Planning permission is granted, work starts, ancient hedges are ripped up, protected trees are undermined, until, whoops, they fall over, sorry – local residents are basically trapped in their houses under the onslaught of earth moving vehicles, the wildlife disappears. Then a viability study is done. Ah, it appears that we won’t make enough profit if we build more than 10% of these houses as affordable, here are our new plans. Also, sorry, but we have no money for S106’s as it proved a little more expensive than we realised to flatten this hill, so that money has gone too. Ah well. The council, totally hamstrung by the 40% cuts to its budget and short of legal expertise and planners, has to agree. We’re getting 1,200 houses around our little town of 8,000 and are yet to see the great improvements, any improvements in fact to our town’s infrastructure. They’re knocking most of the cottage hospitals down in our area, so that’s not much of a help really, but it doesn’t seem to stop the building. There’s a need for housing we keep getting told. There’s a need for actual affordable housing we reply and are greeted by silence.
But the great myth, the worst one of all is the calculation of need. We need houses and to deny this is selfish and this is said across the political spectrum. It’s a shame about the countryside, wildlife, people, but its a necessity. So how is local need calculated? Its very interesting. Here in Devon, during devolution at least; local need was worked out by a group called the Local Enterprise Partnership, the LEP. These groups have evolved out of the old rural business development model and are another brainchild of Osbornes. They are in place across the country and their primary role is to support business and investment in their region. They are paid vast sums of money by the government to invest locally. So far, so good. Just a quick look at their board. Our one at least seems to be made up almost entirely of property developers, arms manufacturers and the CEOs of major construction companies; almost all of the construction companies at work in the South West seem to be represented. Their conflict of interest declarations cover many pages. So these are the people who came up with the figures of housing need. The fact that they could benefit personally from having high figures here, does not seem to have been challenged in any meaningful way. How did they come by the figures? They do not need to say, they are not an accountable organisation and the calculations behind these figures are not accessible to the general populace. There are three or so councillors on the board, they represent the democratic will of the people, the rest of their work is none of your business. The LEP are not democratically elected, their meetings are held in secret, their minutes are concealed, their work is surrounded in mystery and yet they spend our money. They are funded with public money.
The audit office has criticised them, our councillors have criticised them, everyone does, but they are the creation of government and can take the criticism. The people on the board benefit directly from much of the building they do with the public purse. Their companies build the roads that lead to the new developments, their companies finance the new developments, their companies profit from the new business parks set up around the new developments. The conflicts of interest are so huge they seem to be forgotten about. Our next door neighbour, Newton Abbot is a case in point. Despite the fact that the population of Newton Abbot has not grown at all in the last five years, it was calculated by the LEP and other mysterious groups, that the town needed to double in the next ten years. I asked the head of planning at a consultation – Why? The answer – Housing need. How was this calculated? Ah well, its a very complex process, which I personally do not fully understand. Ok, can you point me in the direction of someone who can explain? No. And that’s the typical response you get for any of this type of questioning. The LEP was given a multi-million growth fund payment from the government. Its widely understood by local councillors here that the 40% cut to council budgets has reappeared as payments to the LEP. Our council money has gone into financing a group we have no say over. £46 million of the development fund is going into the Newton Abbot expansion, despite the overwhelming rejection of this plan by local residents. The money is going into widening the road and building further access. Who is building the roads? Galliford Try. The CEO of Galliford Try is on the board of the LEP. Who made the decision to spend this money in Newton Abbot? The LEP. Who gave planning permission for this huge expansion into the green belt around Newton Abbot? The leader of the council led the decision. The leader of the council is on the board of the LEP.
Cut to nearby Torbay, the mayor there is also on the board of the LEP. He makes the most extraordinary planning decisions, decisions that have horrified the population there. His latest is to spend £6.5 million pounds of public money – local council tax money on building a brand new business centre for one company. No surprises to discover that the company building this new centre is Galliford Try, but it is a little surprising to discover that this very expensive build will go to house a Japanese company, presently operating out of Totnes. This company will move to the new, very expensive business centre with an increase of about 30 jobs. £6.5 million pounds for the creation of 30 jobs. The mayor assures everyone that the money will be recouped from the rent. It might take a very long time to pay back, but hey, Galliford Try was paid from the public purse, so everyone is happy.
I am not of course, saying that this is corrupt. It is not illegal, it is happening the way it was intended by central government. These are the sweeteners to keep the building going. The government can say they’ve built new houses, they point to these spurious housing need figures. The building industry is delighted of course, they can build cut-price housing in the most desirable areas for the greatest returns. Local councils have been so starved of cash that the promise of new homes bonuses keep them pliable and if they complain, if doesn’t matter, they have no money to mount any type of challenge to development anyway. The building trade and certain powerful councillors have formed alliances through the LEP, where they all profit through the public purse and can talk happily of growth and building. The only people left out of this equation are the people who actually need houses, local people, who are completely sidelined and ignored. Their wishes and needs are irrelevant. But the biggest loser of course, is our countryside, our most valuable resource. In survey after survey, the British people cite the NHS and the countryside as the most precious and valuable asset we have. Our countryside is invaluable really and to see it treated the way it is at the moment, for the profit of shareholders and government is sickening. Our countryside is being treated as a commodity – and asset to be sold whenever possible at a profit. Once it is gone however, it is gone for good and the danger is very real.