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Opinion: What Does the Housing White Paper Mean for Guildford?

Published on: 14 Feb, 2017
Updated on: 16 Feb, 2017

By Martin Giles

“Feeble beyond belief,” is the Labour description of the housing White Paper presented by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid last week. Labour MPs feel it will not do enough to tackle the “housing crisis” but what is the likely impact on Guildford?

Not much if the borough council’s latest press release is anything to go by. Although further public consultation is to take place in the summer, the Local Plan content remains, for the moment, unchanged, with more than 8,000 houses proposed for green belt sites, and the timetable is carrying on regardless.

Cllrs Spooner and Reeves

Council leader Paul Spooner’s main concern appears to be that the plan is submitted by December so as to head off threats from central government that it will step in and give out planning permission despite local objections and the leader of the opposition, Caroline Reeves, agrees with him.

The White Paper contains a proposal for councils to review their plans in which they allocate land for housing every five years. Councils that fail to allocate enough to meet their “objectively assessed housing requirement” could be stripped of their right to control where homes are built.

Either the turkeys vote for Christmas or the farmer will declare it anyway and perhaps slaughter a few more, for good measure.

There is no doubt that the borough council’s position is difficult. The government is determined to reinforce the economic success of some parts of the South East. There is a £1.7 trillion national debt to tackle and economic growth is the easiest way out, given that it is deemed political suicide to cut deeper into our huge welfare budget.

Economic growth requires more people and more houses. So even though the UK, as a whole, does not have a housing crisis (in many towns, house prices are not beyond the reach of the average earner) chronic shortages and high prices do arise in the economically dynamic places, such as Guildford, where jobs are available.

But Guildford Borough, inconveniently perhaps, is 89% green belt and the Tories have no mandate to build on green belt land. At a national level the Tory manifesto said categorically that the green belt would be “safe” under a Conservative government, a pledge repeated in the White Paper.

Here in Guildford their local party colleagues, at the 2015 elections, repeated commitments to preserve the green belt with campaign headlines such as: “Conservatives Say Green Belt To Stay”.

So what will give?

Some are saying that some parts of the green belt is less green, less valuable aesthetically, than other parts and could be given up without too much loss. But most, if not all, of the green belt strategic development sites designated in the Guildford Local Plan are not scrub land but land currently under the plough – greenfield sites.

Green belt land in Normandy.

The White Paper also heralds a change in the planning rules, to allow for more high-density housing in town centres. What could this mean for Guildford town centre, one of the few areas in the borough not covered by green belt protection?

Sajid Javid said we will need to make better use of the available urban space by becoming – as most Europeans already are – a nation of flat-dwellers. He believes that doesn’t have to mean huge tower blocks and claims that attractive mid-rise blocks are just as economical in terms of space. The centre of Madrid, dominated by low-rise apartment blocks, is reported to have a higher density of homes than Hong Kong.

Of course, whether we want Guildford town centre to look like Madrid or Hong Kong is debatable.

The Communities Secretary also hopes to end big developers “land banking” partly by making them build within two years of getting a planning permit, or lose the permit. A £3 billion fund would be set up to help small builders take on the large developers.

But whoever builds them, more homes, means more people and more cars. Both raise pollution levels, particularly where traffic is slow moving because of congestion. Current levels are already claimed, by objectors, to be too high in parts of the borough. The environmental factors may yet create obstacles the planners and the developers will find difficult to overcome.

Housing developments on green belt are only supposed to be allowed where there are exceptional circumstances. Despite earlier assurances from Sajid Javid’s predecessor, Eric Pickles, that housing shortage could not be regarded as an exceptional circumstance there have been examples where it appears to have been accepted.

Another pressure on the council to meet housing targets is financial. If contributions from central government are to be linked to the targets it is understandable that our borough council feels the arm-twisting is irresistible.

One remaining question mark is how voters will react. Traditionally, most Guildford voters have been loyally Conservative but the most vehement opposers of green belt development, the Guildford Greenbelt Group are, in the main, former Tory supporters. Will more follow?

With the current fashion for voter rebellion, can support for a Local Plan that represents such a major change to our borough’s character be taken for granted?

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test 7 Responses to Opinion: What Does the Housing White Paper Mean for Guildford?

  1. Martin Elliott Reply

    February 14, 2017 at 10:47 pm

    Comments on Local Government Finance Policy next week then? Guest analysis by Cllr David Hodge CBE?

  2. Bernard Parke Reply

    February 15, 2017 at 9:19 am

    It cannot be denied that the “Green Belt To Stay” slogan misled many former Tory voters.

    But perhaps ‘once bitten, twice shy’ will now result on the those Conservatives that feel that they were deceived will now show their aggrieved feelings when they vote on the May 4th.

  3. Peter Shaw Reply

    February 15, 2017 at 9:56 am

    We should be wary. The white paper calls for the National Planning Policy Framework on protection of the green belt to change from only building on the green belt in ‘exceptional circumstances’ to a defined list of actions that need to be considered before councils can change the green belt boundaries.

    At fist glance the list of action may seem reasonable but, in my opinion, it dilutes the protection on the green belt policy to a mere paper pushing exercise. I can foresee how after writing a few biased reports (addressing each of those actions), the council could push through huge development programs, that are not appropriate, and concrete over the green belt.

    My solution for the Guildford area would be… keep the green belt protections in place, require the university to house 100% of its students on campus. Put a reasonable cap on houses of multiple occupancy (like Oxford does). This would free up the type of housing required for first time buyers, low-medium wage earners and help bring back a sense of community cohesion which is missing in some areas/estates due to a high transient student population.

    In parallel with this the council should allow the Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) policy document, and more importantly the model which is used to predict the ‘number of new homes per year’, to be scrutinized in detail. The council paid for these with public money and it is inexcusable that the council refuses to fight to get this model and its formulas released for public scrutiny.

    Getting the right number for the ‘new homes per year’ is crucial, otherwise, townfolk and ruralfolk, east of the borough and west of the borough, young and old, homeowners and renters, will be unnecessarily pitched against each other if the numbers are artificially inflated.

    Let’s get local consensus and, more importantly, confidence in the SHMA number so we can then start to have reasonable and level headed discussions on meeting the needs of the local people.

  4. David Roberts Reply

    February 15, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Guildford Council need to understand that the two prerequisites for “exceptional circumstances” set out in the White Paper are additional to existing Green Belt protections and not alternatives to them.

    This may seem obvious, but residents won’t tolerate it if planners start saying that an application should be approved simply by claiming that (1) there’s no suitable brownfield site alternative available and (2) the damage caused by the development will be offset by some miserable bit of SANG or parkland.

    They already deploy these arguments, of course, but the White Paper does not give them any sort of exclusive validity.

  5. Valerie Thompson Reply

    February 15, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    Many of the statements in the White Paper are contradictory. It will give GBC leverage to spread into the green belt.

    We must continue to fight this and insist that Guildford has plenty of brownfield sites, just waiting to be developed. But what GBC has proposed is to reserve them for businesses, shops and industry, which will inevitably lead to a greater demand for housing.

    The idea of putting flats on these sites is eminently sensible. Even four-storeys high would house a lot of people. Guildford already has four, five or six-storey office buildings, so flats would not be inappropriate. This will not solve the “downsizer” issues but would certainly be more acceptable to first-time buyers.

    It is a fact that England has a very low number of rented flats compared to many European countries, who do not share the UK’s obsession for home-ownership. No-one has a right to own a home, but the country has a duty to provide adequate accommodation for everyone.

    GBC has yet to prove to its residents that the huge numbers proposed in the SHMA are accurate. It is a disgrace that the documents prepared for GBC have never been seen, even by the councillors, let alone the general public. Until they can demonstrate, honestly and openly, that such numbers are truly necessary, they will face a continuing battle with those who wish to preserve the countryside and its amenities.

  6. C Williams Reply

    February 15, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    Given the white paper proposes to introduce a standard formula for the calculation of objectively assessed housing need I suspect the details of the SHMA wont be so important in future.

    As a hunch though, I bet you any money that once we see the standard formula a number of people will be wanting to revert to the SHMA.

  7. John Robson Reply

    February 16, 2017 at 9:46 am

    The Conservatives have closed or given away our heavy engineering, coal mines, shipbuilding industries all of which are still valued by Germany, France, and Italy as key components of a diverse economy.

    We are held to ransom by privatised utility and transportation companies, some of which the profits go to France and Germany, our power generators will now be made by China, schools continue to go backwards and the jewel in the crown, and the NHS and social care, hurtling towards privatisation, is already the preserve of those with the ability to pay and jump the queue.

    So what’s left for the “nasty” party to sell and prop up their flawed economic policy?

    The land beneath your feet, that’s what.

    The Conservatives will continue to act as Brownfield blockers by any means necessary, if it means they can unlock the riches held within England’s green and pleasant land, notwithstanding their elections pledges to the contrary to protect it. That’s politics, the politics of Conservatism.

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