“They paved paradise….” sang Joni Mitchell in 1970.
With the “housing crisis” now accepted as fact, will our generation be remembered for addressing housing supply or for allowing commerce to rise above concerns about loss of green fields, using housing demand as justification?
Despite Ms May’s reassurance in the House of Commons last November that the Government has no plans to change rules on building on the green belt, the current drive to increase the number of available new homes is causing increasing unrest in rural communities across Britain.
A new phenomena is blighting the countryside. Threatening rural peace and biodiversity in equal measure, it offers solution to hard pressed Borough Councils and planning authorities as they scrabble to satisfy the demands of the Five Year Land Supply and housing targets set by Central Government. The UK, home to the entrepreneurial spirit has a whole new industry. With farming threatened by Brexit and increased regulation, landowners are being courted by companies that prepare fields for development by doing the time-consuming work of gaining planning permission. They are then sold on to house builders. These companies don’t ever build, but work within the labyrinthine planning system to expertly take advantage of its weaknesses and loopholes.
The Daily Telegraph has called it “ a modern-day gold rush”. Inspired by the business model adopted by the legal profession, some of these new companies offer services on a “no win, no fee” basis”. The potential for profit is great. The pressure on green belt is increasing.
Like many other Boroughs, Ashford Borough Council in Kent has been working on a Local Plan. National Planning Policy places Local Plans at the centre of the planning system. Local Plans set out how and where that housing supply needed in an area will be met during the life-span of that Plan. Councils that do not keep their Local Plan up to date have come in for much criticism. Ashford is no exception. However, during the development of the latest Ashford Local Plan and after many the many public consultations, it became clear that Ashford was struggling to bring forward the its target number of new homes and had a serious deficit in it’s Five Year Land Supply. Omission sites, that had previously been rejected as suitable for development, have been brought back into the Ashford Local Plan 2030 and are currently being reviewed by the Planning Inspectorate. Several of the Omission sites included in the Plan are in rural locations.
One village that has had Omission sites revised and included in the draft Ashford Local Plan 2030 is Aldington. Residents here are tired of constant development and have lobbied the Borough Council for a period of respite from building. Far from being a village that opposes every proposal, the number of households in this village has grown by 68% since 2001.
In the last fifteen year Local Plan period, Aldington was scheduled to grow by 30 households. In actuality, 186 houses were approved and built.
Now, even before the draft Plan is approved, a developer has countered the 30 dwellings on the Omission sites included in the draft Local Plan, with a different proposal; on a different field, and a plan to build 80 new homes. The village is heart broken but worn out by constantly attending consultation meetings, expressing views then watching as the diggers move in to what used to be a field.
This village has an agricultural heritage. People move here because they want the space, freedom and peace of rural life. They want to be part of a small community, escape the housing estates and raise their children in a village close to nature. But as fields become housing estates the difference between urban and rural lifestyles is being eroded.
A new approach to planning is required.
Residents of Saxon Shore Ward, part of Ashford Borough, which covers the villages of Aldington, Bonnington, Bilsington, Brabourne, Brook, Hastingleigh, Ruckinge and Smeeth have come together to form a Community Group called Rural means Rural to champion their lifestyle ideals and those of villagers across the UK. Together they aim to give residents a voice at a time when many feel ignored or shouted down as NIMBYS by those that argue the value of building above environment, biodiversity of quality of rural life.
Most particularly they oppose the intention in the emerging Ashford Local Plan, through Policy HOU3a, to permit potentially uncapped minor residential development in even in the remotest of villages in the Borough.
The concern is that small pockets of continuous and constant development is slowly but surely eroding rural life – its quality, wildlife and ecological system, the community and character of the landscape.
The Rural Means Rural community group proposes a radical change to the way that the planning application process for residential development reviews impact upon an area. Taking inspiration from the Environmental Impact Assessments that are a key part of every large scale planning application – they propose an holistic approach to lead to better quality, more appropriate development that meets the needs of local people first and grows a community in an acceptable way. Calling this approach the Landscape Protection Policy, they intend to mirror the the emphasis in Environmental Impact Assessments of using the best available sources of objective information and in carrying out a systematic and holistic bias-free process to allow the local authority and the whole community to properly understand the impact of the proposed development.
It is a plan that takes the planning process from consideration of each individual application to a place whereby the cumulative effects of a series of developments over a period of time can be collectively assessed. Rural Means Rural is championing adoption of a Landscape Protection Policy within the National Planning Policy Framework to be adopted into every Local and Neighbourhood Plan.
A Landscape Protection Policy is developed by local residents, who define the special characteristics of their area and then work with infrastructure professionals to quantify them. The data is then used to define a Landscape Protection Policy for that area with which any future planning application must comply.
This exciting proposal puts the power to decide what development is appropriate in a given area back into the hands of the people who live there, in a stronger way than a Neighbourhood Plan alone because it takes an holistic approach and accounts for cumulative effects.
Developers do not have the well being of a community at heart. They have only one objective and that is to build, sell and move on to the next available site to grow their businesses. The same with the land management companies, whose businesses have grown up around opportunity. It’s commercial. It of course has benefits for the country and for potential house buyers – but it is offending villagers nationwide. Developers and land management companies use tactics that are designed to establish what objections might be raised, address them in their planning applications – keeping a token hedge here, working around a tree there, agreeing to resurface the fragile country lane before departing – and employ experts to argue legalities that win them planning approval on appeal. Villagers are beginning to feel that opposing planning applications is pointless…
Local Authorities and national Government need to have a re-think.
A Government Briefing Paper from November 2017 quotes research by Glenigan in 2015 that found “a sharp increase in the number of houses securing full planning approval in the greenbelt.” According to the research in 2009/10, 2,258 homes were approved in Green Belt areas. In 2013/2014, the number had risen to 5,607 and in 2014/2015, it was 11,977 homes. According to DCLG’s land use change statistics, 356 hectares of Green Belt land changed to residential use in 2015-16.
The perception of disappearing fields is not an illusion; it is fact.
Neither is it true that building on green fields is our only option to meet current demand for housing. Another fact is that brownfield sites come with many complications and additional costs in order to regenerate them; old building that need to be removed or land contamination for example. In November 2014 CPRE ( Campaign for the Protection of Rural England) published its From wasted space to living spaces report, which found that at least 1 million homes could be provided on suitable brownfield land in England. The Department for Communities and Local Government described this estimate as ‘wildly over optimistic’ in its Housing & Planning Bill Impact Assessment of October 2015 (page 70). The document claimed that ‘only a fraction will be suitable for housing’, which appeared to disregard the fact that the estimate was based only on sites councils considered ‘suitable for housing’. The CPRE published Housing capacity on suitable brownfield land, October 2016 which cited a new number of at least 1.1 million, based on data that the Government itself had commissioned.