Fringe Box



Letter: Building On The Green Belt Requires ‘Exceptional Circumstances’

Published on: 1 May, 2015
Updated on: 6 May, 2015

Affordable-Housing 2From Ben Paton

Gordon Bridger’s contribution to this debate expresses worthy sentiments but is short on real analysis.

It is terribly easy to make a populist argument. It runs: everyone should be able to afford something (a house, a car, a diamond engagement ring); the government should intervene to make the thing, whatever it is, cheaper. Politicians say, in effect, elect me and I will deliver you a cheaper house.

Applying this to housing runs into some fundamental problems because the affordability of a house depends on where it is. Houses near London cost a great deal. Houses in other parts of the country are much cheaper .

Secondly, even if thousands of ‘affordable’ homes were built it is unlikely to do anything to change the average price level, or even the specific prices, of affordable homes in Guildford – because Guildford is not an island and depends on London.

Gordon Bridger omits some critical elements from his simple model. For example he does not mention that immigration is a key cause of population growth. The website shows for example that over 10% of the population of this borough was born outside the UK, that 8.7% of the population of the borough has arrived since 2000, that over 7% has arrived since 2004 and some 11.73% hold non UK passports. These are ONS numbers.

Nor does he mention that 70% of the new homes built in London are acquired by overseas buyers, or that GBC has not built any council houses for 20 years, or that local infrastructure like schools and roads have limited capacity for new houses.

Who will pay for the new infrastructure? Probably the existing residents – whose quality of life will be adversely affected the increased congestion and pollution.

Simplistic models do not reflect reality and when politicians indulge in economic experiments – like trying to get local government to fix the price of affordable homes – the real costs are usually borne by the taxpayer.

The green belt is the whipping boy for politicians like Mr Bridger. They want to rob the green belt to pay for their social experiments. They find it easy to make a populist and facile argument that just a little bit of green belt, or Stoke Park, or Hyde Park, would help solve the problem they have identified.

But they forget that once you corrupt a principle the whole edifice may start to collapse. The green belt was created in the public interest as a strategic asset for everyone. It does not mean that building is not allowed. It just means that new building should go elsewhere than in the green belt (except in ‘exceptional circumstances’).

There is not in fact a shortage of ‘elsewhere’. Locally it includes brownfield sites. Nationwide it includes large tracts of land – for example the swathe between Oxford and Cambridge that some people are advocating as sites for new towns.

Like many councillors for the town, Mr Bridger is a closet NIMBY. Some of them, I suspect, have similar views, hoping that a Wisley development will reduce the pressure for development in or near their wards.

These arguments amount to saying, ‘put it anywhere but here’ – and don’t let any facts get in the way of what I want; tiresome facts such as the fact that the proposed development at Ockham would be on Grade 3 farmland and compromise the integrity of a Special Protection Area for endangered species.

It is simplistic to say that there is a shortage of houses in the borough. In fact there’s a house for every 2.4 people – which by British standards is a bit more than average and by global standards is princely.

It is true that there is a shortage of social houses. And this is much more directly addressed by incentivising councils and Housing Associations to build. Even Mr Bridger believes that there has been over investment in retail space. Some of that could be converted to housing.

Gordon Bridger advocates building on the green belt. But he also omits to state that as the law currently stands that is illegal unless ‘exceptional circumstances’ are shown. Mr Bridger has never, to my knowledge, ever stated what the ‘exceptional circumstances’ upon which he would rely are.

Politicians who ignore the law are a liability to the public. They cost taxpayers’ money. This current council has spent, according to my reckoning, £3.1m on the Local Plan up to the end of 2014 – and will probably get through another £1m before it is done.

Like Mr Bridger, Mr Mansbridge has arrogantly assumed that whatever he can get his party to vote for will work – even if he is making it up as he goes along.

The question for Mr Bridger, is not whether x% of the green belt will suffice to run his experiment. A more relevant question is what are his ‘exceptional circumstances’? Are they legally watertight? Or are they just a whole lot of pretexts to justify the first simple model he thought of?

If Mr Bridger has no ‘exceptional circumstances’ then what he proposes is not legal. If it is not legal it will require a change in the law. When the law is reviewed the public will be reminded of why it was made in the first place. And then the public will see that Mr Bridger has led them on a merry diversion ultimately to discover what a proper analysis would have exposed in the first place.

Share This Post

Responses to Letter: Building On The Green Belt Requires ‘Exceptional Circumstances’

  1. Paul Spooner Reply

    May 1, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Despite engaging with Guildford Greenbelt Group (GGG) following their erroneous claims in their election literature (and in Mr Paton’s letter) they continue to make the untrue statement that Guildford Borough Council (GBC) has not invested in social housing (council houses) for the past 20 years.

    Given that clarification has been given to GGG I can only assume that they peddle this lie deliberately, as they do with so many other ‘statements’ that sound credible but are without foundation.

    The facts relating to GBC Social Housing are:

    Until 2012 GBC (like all councils with social housing stock) had to send 50% of our tenants rent to central government for redistribution across the country. Under HRA [Housing Revenue Account] reform effected in that year, in exchange for being able to keep 100%, we took on debt of £196m. We then took the significant decision not to repay that debt (just to keep servicing it) in order to free up capital for investment in social housing.

    Following that decision and investment the social housing stock is now being completed. Three new direct build GBC council homes were completed last year. Another 19 have been completed so far during 2015 of 65 being completed by the summer. We are on track to exceed the corporate plan target of 150.

    I should add that GBC also facilitates partners providing affordable housing with advice, land and/or cash contribution. There are currently 95 new units through housing associations, s106 or rural exception sites.

    In summary, debate regarding whether this is too little, too much etc is understandable but to state that nothing has happened in the last 20 years is completely false and without foundation. The norm, in my view, for GGG ‘statements’.

    • John Robson Reply

      May 1, 2015 at 5:52 pm

      Wow, untruths in politics, whatever next.

      But the projected completion of 68 council houses within three years suggests to me that there is no affordable housing crisis within Guildford. The allocation and prioritisation of £5m for the Millmead and Stoke park vanity projects surely confirms this?

      Maybe there is no need for the gr££n belt to be butchered.

      Building on the green belt’s not about affordable housing is it?

      $illy me.

    • Lisa Wright Reply

      May 1, 2015 at 7:40 pm

      Or you could watch the Cllr Creedy’s GBC Housing Strategy video and make up your own mind.

      Lisa Wright is the GGG candidate in Normandy ward.

      • Jules Cranwell Reply

        May 2, 2015 at 8:57 am

        Would that be the Sarah Creedy, lead councillor for affordable housing, and director of Fertower [sic] Properties Ltd, which is building 14 units in Guildford, but not a single affordable unit?

        Sarah Creedy has responded:
        ” I am a director of Ferntower Properties, as is my husband. We are converting an empty office building in the centre of town (as brownfield as you can get) into nine flats. There is a need for further residential provision in the centre of town but no requirement to make any of them affordable in a project of this scale. The building falls naturally into nine separate spaces (two on each floor and one in the basement which is substantially smaller). I have signed a section 106 agreement with the council under which we make contributions to play space, educational provision and green space upkeep as is required under the council’s various policies.”

    • Jules Cranwell Reply

      May 2, 2015 at 9:00 am

      The only lie I can see is the GBC Tories’ new-found love of the green belt, which they promised to protect in their 2011 manifesto. Their daft Local Plan proposes the wholesale destruction of the green belt, including removing 16 of 24 villages from it.

  2. Garry Walton Reply

    May 1, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Brilliant and completely correct.

  3. Harry Eve Reply

    May 1, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    Well put. The term “affordable” is being abused in our region by developers and their politician friends.

    It is part of a “spin and lie” culture to get their way – and make as much money as they can while robbing the rest of us of the countryside that provides us with well-being and is our only secure source of food.

    We are already dependent on the goodwill of foreign nations to supply us with food and yet we go on following a policy of population expansion while building on our potential food supply to accommodate it.

  4. Ben Paton Reply

    May 1, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    Guildford Borough Council (GBC) publishes annual accounts. These are prepared by the officers, approved by the council and audited by external auditors.

    The accounts are available to the public over the internet on this url:

    Going to that website members of the public can download a copy of the GBC Statement of Accounts for 2014/14 fiscal year.

    They can then turn to page 18 of these accounts where they may read for themselves this sentence near the bottom of the page:

    “* agreed contracts for new build on three HRA [Housing Revenue Account] sites…. These will be the first HRA (Housing Revenue Account) properties built by the Council in over twenty years.”

    [HRA is the section of the council’s accounts which deals with its housing portfolio – formerly known as council housing.]

    On page 91 of the same accounts the public may read that the stock of council housing owned by GBC at 31st March, 2014 was 5,229.

    If one looks at the stock of council housing on 31st March 2004 (disclosed in the 2003/4 GBC accounts which can be downloaded using the url above) one finds a figure of 5,610. These audited figures show that the stock of council housing has fallen by 7% in the last ten years. At 31st March, 1999 (the oldest figure available on the above url) the council owned 6,070 council houses. That’s some 16% more than it does today.

    If GBC had been busy investing in council housing then the stock of council houses would have risen and not fallen.

    Members of the public may judge for themselves whether my statement is untrue, whether the statement in the published audited accounts of the council is untrue, or whether Mr Spooner has got his facts wrong.

    Mr Spooner is part of an executive team that has £3.1m spent on the new local plan to the end of 2014 (a figure supplied to me by GBC pursuant to a Freedom of Information request).

    A number of commentators consider the draft plan unsound. For example Natural England wrote, “Natural England disagrees with the conclusions reached by the Habitats Regulations Assessment and the Sustainability Appraisal and advise that the plan is unsound on this basis.” So much for competence.

    Mr Spooner is also part of a team that has refused to disclose the demographic model on which the entire Local Plan is premised. So much for transparency.

    The public may also wish to look at other evidence available on the internet:

    So much for the professionalism and integrity of the ‘leadership’ of the council.

    In their last election manifesto the Guildford Conservatives pledged to protect the green belt. Far from protecting it Guildford Conservatives – led by Mr Stephen Mansbridge, Ms Monika Juneja and Mr Paul Spooner – set out a strategy to ‘roll back’ the green belt.

    This and very many other examples demonstrate that ‘Honesty’, despite being a principle of the Council’s Code of Ethics does not seem to be very important to Mr Spooner and his friends. No wonder politicians are held in contempt.

    Mr Spooner writes, “In summary, debate regarding whether this is too little, too much etc is understandable but to state that nothing has happened in the last 20 years is completely false and without foundation. The norm, in my view, for GGG ‘statements’.”

    Mr Spooner’s assertions are not supported by any evidence. They are refuted by the council’s published accounts.

    Mr Spooner is wrong to ascribe the comments in my letter to GGG. I do not make statements on behalf of GGG or anyone else. I express my own opinions as a member of the public.

    Although I am a member of the Conservative party I believe that the Guildford branch is completely unrepresentative of it. Every party has its share of eccentrics and bad policies.

    I shall be voting for Paul Beresford to be returned as MP for Dorking and for my local GGG candidate, Helen Jefferies, to be returned as the borough councillor for Lovelace. I suspect that most Conservatives in Lovelace will do likewise.

  5. Gordon Bridger Reply

    May 2, 2015 at 10:21 am

    I find it intriguing that several correspondents are so easily able to ignore the fact that we have a serious housing problem. Of course it does not affect those comfortably off elderly people, of whom I an one, who are sitting on property which has a massive notional financial value.

    Many of us, no doubt, would like things to remain as they are and prefer our rural views with its flora and fauna to prosper rather than see it replaced by uninspiring housing.

    But there is a serious housing problem – not only in Britain but in many countries of the Western world. The Economist three weeks ago led with an article about how this was adversely affecting the economies of the UK and the USA. The International Monetry Fund also commented recently on how high house prices in Britain were affecting our labour costs and undermining our international competitiveness.

    Immigration has been a factor in increased demand for housing – and has been woefully excessive – but we have benefited immensely from this immigration in Guildford as immigrants keep our healthcare facilities going while living in institutions or sub standard housing. But is this the way we must solve our problems?

    Various commentators have ignored the fact that the high price of housing in the South East is mainly due to immensely high land costs (two-thirds of the price). This is a self imposed sacrifice because we insist that we give priority to having 89% of land in the green belt.

    This is a perfectly valid and understandable priority but is it socially appropriate morally and economically? As one of the wealthiest communities in Britain it is perfectly understandable that further development is not a high priority to many of us. But if we think beyond the our immediate needs, and those of our children, and take into account the needs of others, the younger less well endowed population, the situation is surely different.

    We are a comfortably off older generation with protected pensions and many other privileges but we are, in fact, living living beyond our means as we have a serious adverse balance of trade (we import more than we export). This has to be subsidised by foreign capital inflows mainly from Gulf States and China. Is this not of concern and even humiliating?

    None of the political parties, too desperate to secure votes, have highlighted this economic dependency. While we all demand secure pensions, better health services and more education, no one mentions the need to promote export enterprises, to pay for this social largesse.

    Our high tech services with export potential, education and health institutions need highly skilled younger staff. But they can no longer settle in Guildford due to high housing costs and, as a result, together with the traffic congestion, major companies are no longer establishing themselves in Guildford.

    Are these not “exceptional circumstances”? If you own a house probably not.

    Of course, we need to prioritise housing in the town centre and on brownfield sites even though until we know at our housing target the argument about location while worthwhile, is academic.

    And we should all remember that this important debate is not helped by personalising issues.

    • Harry Eve Reply

      May 2, 2015 at 7:00 pm

      I am glad that Gordon Bridger seems to agree that building on the countryside should be a last resort but surprised that he appears to believe that developers will solve the Guildford house price issue by massively increasing the supply.

      GBC has not helped this issue by leaving property unoccupied – in at least one case in Horsley and Clandon Ward for over five years. It also seems to have reduced the council housing stock when there is a waiting list.

      There is a plentiful supply of people with well-paid jobs in London who will pay as much as they can afford to buy a home in Guildford. The rule of supply and demand will always keep Guildford’s house prices high and out of reach for those on lower and medium earnings – no matter how many houses you build.

      If prices did begin to fall the developers would stop building and bank their land until prices were in their favour again. Building on the countryside will not solve local house price issues – and nor will the current definition of “affordable” property.

      Why not tackle other aspects of supply, nationally, such as second home ownership (e.g. by MPs – surely a dedicated hotel in Westminster with small rooms would do for them), unoccupied property held for investment and a change of approach from concentrating growth in the South East and London.

  6. Mary Bedforth Reply

    May 2, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    I do like the: “gr££n”. So true.

  7. Chris Dick Reply

    May 3, 2015 at 10:18 am

    It is perhaps worth recalling that on 30 October CPRE [Campaign for the Protection of Rural England] held a packed meeting at Holy Trinity Upper Hall, Guildford. The audience included CPRE supporters and organisers, Resident Associations representatives, Parish, Borough and County Councillors and GGG committee members.

    The main speaker was Alan Wenban-Smith, a consultant in urban and regional policy and visiting professor of planning at Birmingham City University and the inventor of the expression “brownfield sites”.

    Alan’s talk was about the three stages of a Local Plan and, dull as the subject sounds, he captured the audience with his knowledge and well timed wit, for instance: “and that’s as much fun the planners can have with their clothes on”.

    Alan started by explaining that more houses does not necessarily result in lower prices as developers are motivated by profit and will not build unless there is profit.

    During the question time, Cllr Liz Hogger (one of only two Guildford Borough Councillors present) asked Alan what the definition was of “very special circumstances”. To the astonishment of the audience he explained that there is no definition. He added, “you will know it when you see it.”

    He went on to explain by way of two examples in Birmingham where he had been the lead planner during the Thatcher years, when the city was losing more jobs than Wales and Scotland put together.

    At the time, the UK was in economic decline and it was therefore decided to build a first class industrial estate on the green belt just outside Birmingham. These were seen as very special circumstances of National economic importance and were approved.

    Alan gave another example when various UK cities were competing for the new National Football Grounds and again it was considered that there were perhaps very special circumstances that meant that they could seek approval to develop a green belt area between Birmingham and Solihull.

    In the end, as we all know, Wembley won and the matter was not put to the LPA [Local Planning Authority]. He went on to say that very exceptional circumstances do not just suddenly pop up out of nowhere but instead there is a progressive history that builds up and so you can see the reasons developing.

    Towards the end of his presentation Alan said that green belt need not be a relic of the past but instead could be a key part of the future structure around our cities. He considered that with all planning matters, it was transport infrastructure that is the key.

  8. Stuart Barnes Reply

    May 4, 2015 at 9:18 am

    To various comments above I would observe that we have not benefitted enormously from immigration – it has been, and still is, a disaster both for Guildford and for England as a whole. I use the word England because immigration may not be the same disaster for other parts of GB.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *