Housing Blight II

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!

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Housing Blight

I live in a historic City, well I live just outside it in a rural hamlet with no local amenities other than street lighting. If I were to write this piece next year I would have to say I live just outside the city in a once rural, now urbanised suburb. Over the past twenty years the greenfield ‘strategic gap’ between the city and the villages has been built upon and intruded upon so heavily that once neighbouring small towns are very much in danger of becoming our suburbs. We are told we have a ‘housing crisis’. That may well be true in many of our large cities and it is certainly true of London but we are a small island with big aspirations and our politicians, who seem continually short on imagination and vision think that when in recession the only viable answer is to literally ‘build’ our way out of it. Visitors to the UK are often amused when they find themselves travelling through our post-war suburbs; row upon row of largely identical houses. It is immediately apparent to the foreign eye, I am told, where the poor people were expected to reside – and indeed, if you take time to study the historical architecture of our towns it is obvious that new housing was built to echo a supposedly defunct social strata . We have not done ourselves proud in our town planning, and we continue to fail our country in this.

When I lived in the City, the biggest issue was whether Mr and Mrs So and So were going to build their garage or extension in a style in keeping with the rest of the street, or in a way that it didn’t put a neighbouring house in shadow and block out their light, or whether the extra parking was going to overburden existing provision, it was all so simple back then…. Except it wasn’t really – a walk from our railway station into the city centre confirms the lack of thought given. All sorts of planning scams have been going on for years – lovely old buildings were allowed to stand empty, in disrepair – owned by someone on the local council, or in ‘the know’, who might sit with bare-faced cheek in planning meetings as it was reported that the owner of the property couldn’t be traced via some off-shore company in Jersey (or some such), counting the years and seeing the pound signs, until they could bull-doze it and build a cheap concrete money spinner on the site.  An industrial estate was built in the wrong place in the face of fierce opposition because local landowners made sure it wasn’t built in their back-yard, thank you very much! A ring road designed to ease the flow of traffic through the city met a similar fate – great idea but the local land estates weren’t going to let a road be built through their property and in the end the council planner got his calculations wrong and the ring road was set to go right past the historic cathedral, ergo it isn’t a real ring road as one part didn’t get built and the whole thing was a colossal compromise, knocking down Victorian housing that would still be standing today and looking a good deal nicer than some of the cheap housing now built on either side of the ring road which in effect as the city has grown, still takes traffic through the city not around it. Many towns and small cities will have similar stories I’m sure. I cry when I go through Guildford and wonder what must the local planners have been thinking or not thinking) to allow the roads through it to be built in such a way, that the High Street is under siege from elephantine concrete buildings and stands alone, an echo of an architectural heritage with people at its heart.

Now I live more rurally and am at the mercy of extreme weather and the seasons I appreciate far more fully, the need for building with nature and in a way that encompasses our rural heritage and needs.

No doubt many of our government have shares in development companies, or familial ties or perhaps are being blackmailed by them because why else would they allow such appalling deconstruction of our heritage on the scale that they do? It would seem our current government mandate is to use the UK as some kind of monopoly board; land is money, money is King! Developers of large housing projects are simply doing it for one reason – profit. None of these companies have any real philanthropic committment to society, to community or to people other than their own families* are aided and abetted by the greasing of palms, their expensive lawyers and deep pockets to build where they want, how they want and what they want. Protest as we may, developers know that they have enough money to throw at their projects and that they will get their way in the end – by hook and more often by ‘crook’.

We don’t build communities rather, just like a board game, houses are placed arbitrarily in order to meet housing quota and gain the greater profit.  We don’t build houses designed to last in terms of materials and quality, and in some cases we dont build houses that are fit for purpose with bedrooms for instance, that would fit a standard sized bed in them. We have energy standards but no-one builds beyond the minimum standard required, everyone cuts corners. The old adage ‘don’t buy the house that was finished on a Friday’ still holds true. New home-owner still have nightmare experiences of doors that were fitted back to front, boilers where the registration number has been filed off because the plumber fitted a cheap one instead of the one paid for and saved some money, or pipes that leak and windows that don’t close – floors with holes in them, drains that lead to nowhere, there’s a long, long list. Houses are built for profit and profit alone. Rarely is it otherwise.

New housing estates usually come with the promise of ‘community’ assets ie. if you let us build on your doorstep we’ll install a school, a play park, a community space, a shop…’ and in my experience in every instance these promises are rescinded on, it is only where communities stand together and chase, beleaguer, nag and threaten long legal battles that these promises are ever finally met and always compromised.  We should know better, we have enough examples of villages and towns that were built for people to live and work in – it’s just too expensive to follow those models and therefore not enough profit.  Even housing hero’s such as Wayne Hemingway can’t stem the tide of Noddy Town housing estates and sprawling connurbation. Little boxes designed for anything but living in, the barest nod given to the well-being of its occupants.

We build on flood plains, we fill in thousand-year old field drains, we build on green fields because it would cost too much and take to long to clear up the disused industrial sites and brown field sites available and produce lengthy statistics from experts to say that all this is fine but it never is. I think the rule should be that a new housing estate can only be built if the developer and a member of parliament or the local council also live there for a minimum period of five years. Unworkable! I hear you cry, possibly but no less unworkable than allowing them to build in the first place. I predict that in only ten years time we will be facing the backlash of all this irresponsible building and it wont be pretty. Thing is the people responsible wont be around to face the music – they’ll be sunning themselves abroad – after all once they’ve ruined the UK why would they want to live there? They at least can afford to leave. Housing blight is the greatest disease of the new millenium.

*I would love to hear of a large development company that was genuinely philanthropic