Since posting my tentative exploration of Housing Blight – a phenomena that i thought many people would be unable to relate to; mostly because it’s hard to appreciate why new housing can be a blight on the community it’s imposed on, unless it has happened, or is happening to you, I have been inundated with emails, tweets and people stopping me to talk further about it. Every one, a shared horror story about how a developer where they live or work, has flouted the planning system and reneged on their promise in order to build new housing and it seems this problem is not unique to the UK. Let me share a few: here in Wiltshire, over the summer Wiltshire Council (a large band of “faceless bureaucrats” to quote a neighbour) have laid off staff in the planning department, so clever developers blasted them with a raft of planning applications, knowing full well that there wasn’t the staff to deal with them in the mandatory 31 days stated, and that parish councillors and wiltshire councillors would most likely be on holiday and therefore any objections were likely to go unregistered. If the council hadn’t dealt with the application within the mandatory time, the developers were free to launch an appeal. It costs in the region of £50k a time for councils to go to court, so they avoid it like the plague and obviously developers know this and play on this weakness in the system for all their worth. In Devizes a developer applied to build thirty houses, there was strong opposition so he agreed to put £80k towards a community centre and planning permission was agreed based on that promise. However once he’d started building he appealed the amount of money required as his contribution towards the community centre, the appeal was held in his favour, he built his thirty houses and suffice to say – no community centre! You only have to look at the planning advisory website to realise that developers are laughing all the way to the bank http://www.pas.gov.uk/local-planning/-/journal_content/56/332612/3749791/ARTICLE – they manipulate the law and due process, like it was a personal plaything and have made a mockery of the planning system. Ultimately ‘money talks’ and the law can’t stop them, and if it does, they’ll play the waiting game and appeal.
We are supposed to have something called ‘localism’ here in the UK, the government even introduced the ‘localism act’ but ironically it has eroded the power of local communities to protect their local environment and their homes and lives, not improved it. Neither the developers nor MPs have to, or are likely to live in these Noddy Town developments that are being built in answer to the Governments rallying cry of ‘build, build, build!’. If new homes are so desperately needed, then let’s build for the future. Let’s build homes that form a community, that are built to last, that are built to a standard that the developers would want from their own homes, and with features that would make their own families comfortable and happy. Let’s deliver beyond the minimum standards for energy efficiency, let’s invest some of those huge profits in philanthropic building for the benefit of others not ourselves.
I challenge UK MPs to write a list of what they value most about their own homes and the communities they live – and then get out there and compare this to the new housing estates being built, and to the existing homes that have been ‘blighted’ or impacted by the building of these new homes; the water supply issues, the added impact on local traffic, local resources and then to list what they would be prepared to sacrifice in the name of this insane ‘build now, count the cost later’ policy. I challenge UK MPs to look at all the appeals and broken promises not delivered by developers on new housing over the past five years in their area – I suspect it will make telling reading. If we are to have a rigorous system in the UK that works to the benefit of local people and the environment, things will have to change, or we will rise out of recession with far greater expenses looming on the horizon. Worse, and possibly already happening – once thriving towns suffering from economic depression will become ghost towns, starved of life by all the many impacts of housing overload, roads under so much pressure people stop going into the towns, tourism being driven away, water at drought conditions in both spring and summer, the expenses of dealing with flooding…. oh there’s a long list. We need GOOD planning, thoughtful planning, this is why our tourist industry thrived and equally why it will die away if we are not quick to act.
Stop thinking about London, London, London. Stop imprinting its unique challenges on the rest of the country! Look around you. Look beyond your cosy little Westminster glee clubs. Soon the only good things about towns and cities in the UK will be in books, they will be stories, myth, legend. Stop over-ruling local planning decisions on the side of your chums (the big fat-cat developers) and stop pretending that you have the best interests of local communities at heart – because a whistle-stop bus tour of Salisbury and its surrounding (once countryside) suburbs would soon put paid to that lie. And from what I hear it’s endemic across the UK. You started it government, you sort it out before it’s too late!