When I look at Strategic Plans I am amazed at the simple minded, deeply flawed attitudes to village life they display.
The Guildford Strategic plan is a good case in point. Around a third of the population of Guildford Borough lives outside Guildford itself, most live in villages or scattered sites. Most of the villages form part of the greenbelt. They are, in the proper sense of the word, embedded in the greenbelt. They are a natural part of it and essential to its maintenance.
However, nowhere in the plan is here an analysis of what makes a village work carried through to recommendations. The role of the villages in the plan is simply to serve as dormitories for Guildford and for London. As a consequence development is completely out of scale, assumes the existence of infrastructure and takes no account of how a village actually works as a human environment. (This is despite the fact that they apparently went to the trouble of consulting Parish Councils on what makes a village work)
A different problem exists in the National Parks – our other great protected area. Here the problem is second homes. The Chief Executive of one of our great parks has said that, over the last ten years a thousand new or converted dwellings have been put up in his park but the population has increased by one hundred.
The pattern is different but the effect is the same – villages are emptied of daytime residents in the week. It would be naïve to suggest that a village could sustain itself by serving the local rural community, those days are long past, but there are many ways in which villages can be vibrant communities with permanent daytime communities.
My own village has two roles economically:
- It is something of an active tourist hot spot at the weekend with walkers, cyclists, horse riders and those who come simply to enjoy the fresh air. It can be a pain but it supports two pubs, two cafes an ice-cream shop (all in the best possible taste)
- More importantly, powered by the internet, it has sixteen separate businesses from natural health through computer maintenance to the supply of industrial solvents. It also has a range of sole trader consulting and service activities. These businesses are here because the people who run them want to live here and the web enables most of them to work effectively from here.
We don’t live in some splendid rural isolation, we are part of the wider world and connected to it.
The outcome is that we have a daytime community which supports a good Co-op with a post office, a church, a doctor’s surgery and, most importantly, a walk to school infant’s school. The same basic pattern is true of many of the villages around here. Where it isn’t, it is generally the loss of the village school that has made the difference. So what housing does my village need? It doesn’t need to be a dormitory, it needs:
- Genuinely affordable housing so that young families can stay here. The question is how do we release the modest amount of land needed at an unimproved price and build housing that will stay affordable ( answers on a postcard please)
- Smaller flats in the centre of the village so that the elderly can trade down (releasing larger homes) and stay here
- Not a lot more housing of any type – maybe 15% over ten years
- Some (farm-based) office and workshop space to enable the growth of our small businesses.(The space exists).
Does that make me a NIMBY? No, I am not against development even in my own back yard. Communities develop or they atrophy and die. I am against the creeping suburbanisation of our rural spaces. We need a planning system that is based on the needs of the local community and sensitive to its environment. I hear the rhetoric about localism – I don’t see it in action.
The important point is that successful villages, and there are many, have a life of their own and that life is the most important thing that sustains the greenbelt for the rest of us to enjoy.
Now the politics are beginning to be interesting. The Guildford Greenbelt Group has registered as a political party and intends to stand in the local elections in May. So far as I know this is the first time a local group, as opposed to individuals, has decided to stand as a party in an election. (Though Formby Action Group have a councillor)
Don’t miss the significance of this. There is a profound mood of disillusion with the major parties generally. Normally this would result in the vote going to the Liberal Democrats but they can’t benefit this time – hence the growth of UKIP and the SNP.
Specifically local candidates campaigning on one issue can cause an upset – Dr Richard Taylor in 2001 caused an upset campaigning on the closure of Kidderminster Hospital A&E. Unusually he retained his seat in the 2005 General election (largely because the Liberal Democrats did not put up a candidate).
The difference, and the significance, of the Guildford Group is that greenbelt campaigning is local to many places in England. If there is the will this is a political campaign that could focus nationwide concern. There is nothing that politicians will react to more than seeing votes ebb away. I think the Guildford Group are doing something really important. More power to their elbow.
See them on guildfordgreenbeltgroup.co.uk
You will notice that the idea of sustainable development of housing is at the centre of the Planning Policy framework. So what does it mean?
Well you can try looking for a definition but I doubt you will find one that goes beyond windy rhetoric. So let me try for you. It might mean:
Sustainable using existing infrastructure
A pleasing definition this one. How would we recognise it? Limited local development designed to work with existing resources might be a good start
Here I think we would be looking for development associated with good public transport networks, with efficient housing, local access to shops, schools etc.
Limited development sensitively designed to work with the existing social networks in neighbourhoods or discrete local communities would be a good sign. This is particularly important for our villages currently but you can see the dangers in the old comprehensive developments in the inner cities. Houses don’t make communities work – people do.
Housing as part of mixed development built in response to local demand not as dormitories for some distant employment market.
So what is it in practise?
Housing development divorced from all of the above, driven by how little the developer can contribute through section 106 or the 40% social housing provision (of which more, much more, later).
Eric Pickles said:
This government has been very clear that when planning for new buildings, protecting our precious green belt must be paramount. Local people don’t want to lose their countryside to urban sprawl, or see the vital green lungs around their towns and cities to unnecessary development.
Today’s guidance will ensure councils can meet their housing needs by prioritising brownfield sites, and fortify the green belt in their area.
Brandon Lewis said:
We have put Local Plans at the heart of the reformed, planning system, so councils and local people can now decide where development should and shouldn’t go.
Support for new housing is growing, because communities welcome development if it is built in the right place and does not ignore their needs. That’s why 230,000 planning permissions were granted by councils in the last year alone, while the most recent official statistics show that green belt development is at its lowest rate since modern records began in 1989.
Now, if you choose you can believe all that. Or, if you rely on the experience so far, you will say that those views are inconsistent with the behaviour forced on every council involved in planning for the greenbelt. All under pressure to meet housing targets. You might think – they are trying to park this one until after the election. No doubt unworthy, but that is exactly what Guildford has just done.
Watching our politicians wrapping themselves in flags – currently the Saltire or the cross of St George – makes me think that we are at a point of change in our politics. The truth is that the party system in Westminster and the permanent government in Whitehall really don’t “get” the importance of the local in people’s lives. Yes, we are all connected to the whole world but past a point in your life (marked by marriage and children for most of us) the local becomes important again. I can see a mood growing that is increasingly disenchanted with the highly centralised State we have.
The greenbelt campaigns all seem to share the view but it sits along with a sense that we are responsible for something much more than our local interests. What we are up against, however, is the importance of the place of power in our politics. The centre sees the growth in population and the internal and external migration that is driving the pressure around our cities, and says we have to build on the greenbelt. The developers see an opportunity to build lots and cheaply – it’s cheaper to build on green fields and the sites are generally bigger. But they want to have their cake and eat it. So, we have the housing minister at the time telling us that the National Planning Policy Framework leaves decisions at the local level but the housing numbers, enforced by the inspectorate, leave our councils between a rock and a hard place. They are damned by us if they remove land from the Greenbelt and hoist by the inspectorate if they don’t.
So, what can we do about it? Ideally we want a national campaign to argue the general case for the greenbelt. The fact is that the greenbelt is as important to people who live in our cities as it is to those of us who live in it. I rediscovered the Surrey greenbelt when I was living and working in inner city London and needed a space bigger than Clapham Common to make me feel healthy again. That is still true. The CPRE is probably best placed to deliver that national campaign but I am not sure that they see it as their primary role. We will see.
That’s why we created this site. We see this as a first step at putting all the local campaigns in touch with each other so that we can learn from each other
On it you will find the web-sites of local campaign groups and a forum for discussion of issues that face us all. We haven’t identified every local group, and probably never will, so add more if you know of them. Take some time out to reflect on your own experiences and what you have learned that would be useful to others.