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Opinion: A Good Walk Spoiled – The Gulf Between Proficient Planning and What We Have

Published on: 7 May, 2022
Updated on: 8 May, 2022

By Martin Giles

When my wife said: “Are you coming for a walk?” I happily said yes. I had fed the Dragon with new stories so felt I could take some exercise with my conscience clear.

We walked down to the river and headed south on the River Wey towpath. It’s a favourite short walk of ours down to St Catherine’s Lock. Within minutes we can feel far from the madding crowd, out of sight of houses and within sight of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the south.

The surroundings offer relief to the soul, a balance to the rush and tear, an oasis of relative calm. You can slow down physically and mentally, you can breath deeply and just be, sometimes taking an interest in a tree, a wildflower or a fleeting glimpse of local fauna.

But then as we turned back I noticed houses emerging from the greenery invading the view. The new development on the old kennel/cattery on the south side of St Catherine’s Hill was making its unwanted presence felt, trespassing on my tranquillity.

Creeping suburbanisation, here just below the historic St Catherine’s Hill, as can be seen, often more destructively in many parts of our borough.

What is happening now is bad enough but our current Local Plan only takes us up to 2034. What are we going to do then when the population is still increasing and we have developed all the former green belt strategic sites?

This is what I asked some local politicians in 2019 before the Local Plan was adopted. In return, I got blank looks as if the thought had not occurred to them. For some of them, I don’t think it had, for others it was an awkward question to be avoided.

This was not surprising. Most politicians worry about the period between now and the next election. And they can count on our political memories being short.

They can also count on planning not being at the top of people’s minds when they vote in a general election. Time was when that was appropriate, but not any more.

All the key planning policy decisions are taken at Westminster and so are all the key decisions affecting the level of demand for new houses.

Economic factors affect demand of course – wage levels, interest rates and so on. And occupancy per household is falling: more people are living alone. But perhaps the main driver is population growth.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the biggest cause of population growth in the UK is net inward migration. No matter the cause, if the population continues to grow, more homes are needed, although forecasts of future growth vary and have changed significantly post-Brexit and post-pandemic.

But, however many new houses are built there has to be sufficient infrastructure capacity. And parts of our infrastructure are not easy to expand.

Old roads built in previous centuries for horse and cart or, at best, stagecoaches, cannot be widened without wholesale destruction of some existing houses, some of them historical.

Water supply is naturally limited. Sewage systems and power supply can be increased but not easily and we are not doing it.

The South East is already one of the most densely populated areas of Europe. Do we really want ever-increasing suburbanisation of areas currently rural in character?

This does not seem to be a concern for the government, which measures progress only in terms of economic growth, no matter the environmental or social cost. No matter how the extra wealth created is distributed. No matter that the population estimates on which the plans are based are cockeyed and out of date.

“We need more houses! Build, build, build!” say some, so we give up green space to build more houses that will be sold to the highest bidder and remain out of reach of those with the greatest need and nearly all those looking to get on to the housing ladder.

At the same time, the current regulations and rules make it practically impossible for councils to build more social housing which most agree is what is really required.

This madness needs to stop.

GBC party share after the 2019 election. The worst result for local Tories since the creation of the borough council in 1974.

In 2019 Guildford threw out the Conservatives following their willing collaboration with the government to devise a Local Plan that very few liked, or found sound.

But now, three years later, the plan survives with all the intended green belt development intact while plans for ever higher town centre development are touted, ostensibly to help relieve pressure on the green belt!

The only winners here are the developers, who appear to have so much influence through highly questionable, in ethical terms, donations to Conservative party funds.

The planning system is so skewed in favour of development that even when there is overwhelming local opposition to a development, and a council dares to refuse an application, a planning inspector is wheeled out, who has no skin in the game, other than his/her career interests, and who inevitably tells us locals that it’s too bad if we don’t like something, he/she is just following the rules, we are going to have it anyway.

The saddest thing, if you share my concern, is that there is little prospect for change.

As an electorate, we still tend to vote for the main parties at a general election and none is offering the radical policies on planning necessary to alter course. Too often every party wishes to impose their political philosophy rather than listen carefully to popular views and reflect those in their policies. Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?

The Conservatives make empty promises about preserving the green belt while maintaining policies to do the opposite and while they keep taking money from developers.

Population density England. The population density in Guildford borough is 546 per square kilometre. But about 85 per cent is still green belt. Image Reddit

The Lib Dems have a confused policy on planning. Ed Davey talks about being in favour of green belt preservation but also of the need for more houses, as do Lib Dems locally, who seem to have shrugged their shoulders about the existing Local Plan.

Labour put forward a bill last year designed to make developers use planning permission for major housing schemes within two years – rather than three as at present. It was described as the “use it or lose it” bill. It seemed a good idea. Of course, being in opposition they were unable to get it enacted.

Locally, their two councillors voted for the Local Plan and still seem to support it. And some of their colleagues in Parliament, such as Emily Thornberry, brought up in Guildford, is on record as saying more green belt needs to be released.

All the major parties offer is the inevitability of inexorable development, increasing suburbanisation, and never-ending disappearance of our green spaces.

So I curse the whole rotten and corrupt planning system that I have been observing with growing disgust over a decade, growing as surely as the housing developments in this borough of the type that few of us want.

There is no answer. The powerful hold all the cards. They can thumb their noses at us as they look to their next election victory while the developers trouser their profits.

But I would at least like our local politicians, all of them, to protest. I would like to see them demand change. I would like to see them represent those who voted for them. I would like to see them publicly fight for Guildford. I would like to see them try.

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test 4 Responses to Opinion: A Good Walk Spoiled – The Gulf Between Proficient Planning and What We Have

  1. Jan Messinger Reply

    May 7, 2022 at 1:35 pm

    An excellent piece from Martin Giles and I totally agree. This seems to be no more a green and pleasant land. We cannot carry on like this with building housing in the South East all the time. The situation is made worse by every house, it seems, having an extension built so people feel there is no open space and certainly no peace and quiet.

    Mind you, even my friends in the North of England talk of the build, build, build in their areas. So I would say we all feel the same.

  2. M Durant Reply

    May 7, 2022 at 9:42 pm

    An informative piece by Martin Giles, I agree as I also said in my letter. Maybe a group should be started to address the concerns of residents.

    With materials going up in price one can hope they may not be able to afford to built in any case.

  3. Alistair Smith Reply

    May 8, 2022 at 10:09 am

    The Society agrees with many of the points mentioned in the useful article.

    The council could do more to manage development, within the current dysfunctional system, as an example many towns and cities have clear height limits e.g. Brighton, why not Guildford?

    The Society also believes we need to do more to have quality local developments for all rather than just comply with minimum standards.

    Alistair Smith is chair of the Guildford Society.

    • Ricky Sonn Reply

      May 8, 2022 at 11:02 pm

      How about cracking down on buy to let landlords who charge exorbitant rates on properties that are more often than not poorly maintained and stuffed with multiple occupants to maximise return on “investment”?

      What percentage of residential property in Guildford is owned by foreign investors? I would be amazed if they were not dwarfed by locals who paid off their mortgages years ago, only to collect £2000+ a month from young families who barely earn that much.

      I suggest the next opinion article focuses on rental and property prices in Guildford which might be enlightening for a few of those who criticise any new development.

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