How many of Wiltshire’s new homes will be built in our back yards?

Written by Tony Millett on .

Is there a housing crisis in Britain - or is it a planning policy crisis?  With the number of new homes being built falling ever lower and the coalition government’s new planning policy still in its final planning stages, fears have been raised that there is about to be a free-for-all which will see great parts of the countryside covered with new homes.

The first round of consultation on Wiltshire’s ‘core strategy’ plan for the next fifteen years of development has now ended. It has raised some fury. The draft plan calls for 37,000 new homes across the county by 2026 – with 20,000 of them concentrated in north and west Wiltshire.

Vociferous protest movements in Devizes and Chippenham have been joined by the twenty-five organisations, including the Wiltshire branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, which have written a joint letter to the council. 

Under the draft plan the Marlborough area is expected to take 4,500 new homes between 2006 and 2026 (of which 895 have already been completed.) All but 500 of those would be in the town itself. That means that from the end of 2010 until 2026 the town needs to have 3,215 new houses built – with 385 beyond the town boundary in the community area.

Area plans are one thing, national planning policy may allow something quite different. And the government is changing the planning system to insist on a presumption in favour of sustainable development – planning becomes solely a tool of economic growth.

On top of that the government has instructed local authorities to increase their building targets by twenty per cent. So when the Wiltshire plan comes back for final consultation in a few months’ time, the number of houses to be built in the Marlborough area may have gone up not down.

A very experienced local planning expert has become involved in the national debate over these policies.  Graham Warren who lives near Marlborough, was a partner in the Swindon-based planning consultancy Chapman Warren which had offices around the country. He is now a freelance consultant.

Graham Warren  wrote to The Times to calm anxieties that the government’s plans would lead to a development free-for-all. He believes that the localism legislation will give new power to local communities to decide how much development they do and don’t want in their area.

And he points out that the government’s new planning framework is a policy not a law, so existing planning laws still hold good.

There is no doubt that the planning system is creaking and needs reform.  As Mr Warren pointed out to Marlborough News Online, the costs of obtaining planning permission can be excessive – up half a million pounds for a major development of 2,000 houses.

And council departments, already struggling with the load of planning applications, are now faced with staff cuts and the employment of cheaper, less qualified people.

Right now, Graham Warren says, there is inertia in the building industry, what he calls an ‘interregnum’ while the government’s new planning system squares up to localism: “The schism between localism and the planning system - whatever that’s going to be - is a huge unknown.”

As he put it in his letter to The Times: “The government wishes to see more houses built, but has set out with a localism agenda that will have precisely the opposite effect.”

One of the factors in the ‘unknown’ will be the government’s New Homes Bonus.  This has been developed to reward councils that permit new building and to counter what was feared would be a major epidemic of nimby-ism brought on by the localism legislation.  One LibDem MP has described the Bonus payments as "bribes".

In the unlovely language of government, this Bonus will be “unring-fenced”. So the money can be used by councils to make improvements to the infrastructure that new homes need or it can be used to re-decorate county hall.
Whatever happens nationally, how will Wiltshire council balance the government’s ‘wants’ with the legally backed localism agenda?  On the evidence so far localism does not seem to be winning in Wiltshire.

It is widely known that the council’s Tory majority incurred the wrath of senior party spokesmen who, while they were preparing their localism policies in opposition, argued against Wiltshire becoming a unitary authority.  The demise of the district councils was seen as a blow against the party's localism agenda.

More recently, the Council put costs and economies of scale ahead of localism when they disregarded the work of local charities and volunteers and awarded contracts to run all but three of the county’s thirty Sure Start centres to national rather than local organisations.  Following that precedent, the New Homes Bonus will be a tempting financial incentive to bypass local opposition to housing developments.

So watch out for the council’s response both to the local protests at their draft plan and to the government’s planning policy.