A Tsunami of Housing – or How the Tories changed from being the party of the countryside to the party of developing it…

A Housing Tsunami

Field in Harberton, South Hams – 80 house planning application (by Gillian Modrate)

For anyone who loves the countryside, recognises its importance or values having green spaces and clean air, news coming from both Westminster and from the housing sector is very worrying indeed.

I think it’s fair to say that the housing industry has had a good lockdown. Despite huge profits from last year, most of the construction and housing groups have furloughed their staff and most it seems, are not in any hurry to pay it back, Taylor Wimpey being the exception. Developers are bouncing out of lockdown and viewing the new landscape with an opportunistic eye.

‘Taylor Wimpey raised £522 million in a fundraising this week and has said it will use the cash to buy land that is being sold at knock-down prices because of the pandemic. And it is focusing on regions such as East Anglia and the South West, as demand grows for properties in areas further out from big cities that have space for home offices.’ Daily Mail- 18th June, 2020

Its clear to see that there has been a sea-change in how many of us work or at least see work. People have realised that they no longer need to schlep to their office in the city, instead they can buy a small holding in the countryside and watch the sheep graze while they go through their accounts. This is all great, normally I would be delighted by this, but this recent enthusiasm for working from home has been greeted by the largest developers with glee. They have taken their millions in hand and have started eying up unspoilt countryside.

Sherford New Town near Plymouth, one of the Heart of the South West LEP’s projects

This coupled with the news from Westminster that Jenrick (of the Westferry scandal) and Cummings (of other scandals) are intending a major shakeup of the planning system. To quote the Sunday Times of June 7th, 2020,

‘Jenrick and Johnson’s senior aide, Dominic Cummings, have set up a panel of experts to advise on radical reforms to planning laws that will hand control of decisions from local councils to development corporations owned by the government’.

means that not only do developers believe that profit lies in the countryside, but also it’s been noted that the main obstacle to the millions is the democratic process by which planning decisions are supposed to be made.

Local councils for all their faults, are democratic bodies dealing with public money. They answer to the public, they are representatives, if you don’t like a councillor, you can try and change him/her. You can hold them to account, they are in their position because of the electorate and therefore make decisions with one eye on the people who live in their area. Not so the business groups that Westminster has been promoting to take their place.

Take for example the Local Enterprise Partnerships that have been in place for a few years now. They were created by Cameron and Osbourne to replace rural business groups and to quietly privatise much of local government’s work. Local Enterprise Partnerships (a brilliantly anodyne name) were introduced with an impressive amount of double speak, ‘localism’ was the main and most annoying one. For of course they are the opposite of ‘local’ as anyone understands it. In the beginning their boards were mainly made up of a mixture of property developers and council heads, ours here in Devon consisted almost entirely of those in the construction industry. For a group that’s supposed to be about supporting all regional business, it was very (national) developer-heavy. Since their inception, a great deal of public money has poured into their coffers, taken almost in its entirety from local council funding. As councils have had to cut adult education, social welfare and playgrounds, LEP’s have spent lavishly on local infrastructure; roads that almost always seem to go to their own developments or to ‘garden towns’ that their friends in industry build. They are not transparent, they are not democratically elected, they have vast sums of public money in hand.

The thought then that these groups, or ones very like them but less ‘local’, will be in charge of planning decisions is very worrying indeed. We have a perfect storm coming and it feels very bleak. Here in the SW our economy relies almost entirely on tourism and farming. The prospect of enormous development companies, backed by international money pouring into the SW with the blessing and support of government, using our very beautiful and fragile land to make their millions and ‘keep the economy going’ as the Housing Minister says, is not good.

I don’t want the phrase ‘once built on and it’s gone forever’ to be the fate of Devon or anywhere else. The old refrain of ‘nimbys’ is heard far less often these days. People have realised that these new estates are very rarely built for those who need them. I was told by a local councillor that approx 40% of the new builds around where we live in the South Hams have gone for second homes. There is no employment, little improvement to infrastructure, transport, connectivity. Our health is affected by air pollution, our hospitals (what remains of them) are overwhelmed, our wildlife is disappearing, our ancient hedgerows under siege. There is a Tsunami of building and its clearly for profit; not for us. It needs challenging and challenging now.

The Dart, South Hams, Devon

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