Building on the Green belt should be the very last resort!
Anyone who takes a walk in countryside surrounding peaceful Wiltshire market towns such as Marlborough, Devizes, or Westbury would find it a crying shame that such tranquility might be spoilt by the development of new housing estates, and the increase in noise and pollution they can bring. In fact it’s not just that more houses potentially means loosing more green spaces, or the fact that villages surrounding towns eventually get swallowed up. I used the afore-mentioned towns because I live in Wiltshire, but they could in fact be any middle-sized town where successive governments have failed to make sufficient infrastructure provisions. These towns get developments tacked on around the edge of them without much thought given to the inevitable extra vehicle movements these extra houses create. suddenly you get to the stage where a by-pass is needed, but no by-pass can be built because it’s either too expensive, or there’s something in the way, like a hill, or a new housing estate. In a recent interview for BBC Wiltshire, Devizes MP Claire Perry argued that plans at both a local and national level would try to ensure that this didn’t happen in the future.
Call it Nimbyism if you must, but I truly believe that the ‘housing crisis’ cannot be overcome simply by building more houses; we need more creative solutions, a development has to be right for the area, not simply right for Taylor Wimpey’s shareholders. Why do developers always seem to think Green belt land needs to be used? For many people this is a precious and endangered resource. Once it is developed, that’s it, lost forever, never again to be green fields, unlike brown field sites which have at one point in time been used for something but could also be termed waste land. Some developers have argued that the reason the prices for new houses are so high is because land is at such a premium that it pushes the initial cost of the development higher than it might otherwise have been and so more green belt land needs to be released. If Grant Shapps is to be believed the government’s National Planning Policy Framework would in effect ring-fence Greenfield sites from development.
If the cost of building on the Green belt is so high, then why can’t brown field sites be used instead? A recent trip along the Park and Rail from Old Hill, Halesowen into Birmingham highlighted great acres of unused brownfield sites which could be utilised as cheap, affordable social housing without the need to encroach further on the remaining green fields that surround Birmingham, Wolverhampton, etc. I appreciate that it’s not exactly the ideal place to live, by a railway, but trains are far quieter than they once were, and if marketed at the right price most people would probably not see it as much of an issue if it mean getting so much as a toehold on the property ladder. This is what I mean about the right housing in the right areas. There would be lots of people living close to a main artery into the city, who would therefore not necessarily need a car to get to work as they might do if there lived in a suburb of a suburb. They could use the excellent rail links in places like Birmingham to get to their jobs. It’s not just the building of houses, it’s everything else that does with it, there would need to be a comprehensive review of the transport system in the area; will we need more bus routes? Should we keep that rail link open? Will we need to add an additional lane to the by-pass?
There is another solution, something of an elephant in the room in some circles, and certainly one which politically leaves one open to a lot of criticism from people like Age Concern and Saga. Older people, with large empty family houses could downsize. Yes, there are some people who already downsize, but nothing like enough. Not only does this mean that picturesque little villages are beginning to turn into places populated almost entirely of retired people, but as these elderly people continue to hold on to large family homes, people further on down the property ladder struggle to find suitable houses for growing families and the demand to build new ones soar.
I should just like to point out that I am not ageist, I just think that there is a group of elderly people out there who need to become less blinkered about their changing circumstances. Having worked for social services I have seen it happen time and again. That wonderful three bedroom detached house which was so wonderful to bring up children could all too easily become a source of stress and anxiety for an elderly person on their own. The garden can become unmanageable, and the stairs a potential health hazard and gradually that person can become increasingly isolated with a greatly reduced quality of life. I don’t think I’m being unduly pessimistic; I speak with the experience of someone who has spent a number of years working for social services, this sort of scenario can and does happen.
One option being considered, is to try to make downsizing seem more appealing to those who don’t see why they should move out of the house they worked so hard to pay for in the first place. No one is suggested that older people should be chucked out of their homes, or made to feel pressured to leave homes they cherish, but financial incentives, such as nil stamp duty for people over a certain age, may make people really consider it as an alternative to staying put. Not only would it help with the need for decent three bedroom home, but think of all those estate agents that and solicitors who need the business! If the demand for new builds goes down, inevitably the price for newer homes will hopefully fall as well, this in turn might mean that more people will then be able to get on the property ladder, because the homes are more affordable (thanks to schemes like FirstBuy). Grant Shapps’ recent proposal goes one step further by letting Local authorises take guardianship of older people’s homes to house families who were on the waiting list for a council house; the home owner would not necessarily lose out as the maintenance costs would be met by the authority and they would receive any profit ultimately it would release pressure on local authorities for social housing and get families into much nicer homes. While it may make sense to marry empty homes to people on the council house waiting list, it could be, in the words of Sir Humphrey, a very courageous move.
It’s not going to be an easy one to solve; before more housed are built, I would strongly urge government to consider investing in strengthening this country’s infrastructure, i.e. road and rail. More houses will almost certainly mean more cars on a road network that struggles to cope as it is. We seriously need more rail links, and railway network which isn’t ruinously expensive to use. The fact that places like Wiltshire and Somerset can now be considered commuter country too demonstrates just how woefully short-sighted the Beeching Axe really was, but that is really for another article. I still believe that since we’re not really a country full of factories anymore, that those brownfield sites could be put to good use. Maybe it’s the name that puts people off seriously considering them, perhaps if we called it Recycled Land it may make it a more attractive prospect!
Posted on January 26, 2012, in Comment, General, Local Government, Parliamentary Business and tagged Birmingham, Brownfield, Claire Perry, Devizes, Grant Shapps, Greenbelt, Halesowen, housing, Marlborough, Nimbyism, Older people, Westbury. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.