Affordability and Localism
Berkshire Live reports that in Wokingham the average house price for first time buyers is £400,000 meaning the household income needed to buy is £89,000. A recent report from the Council for the Protection of Rural England considers 98% of residents are unable to afford a new-build home on the open market on their incomes alone.
This leaves people dependant on various “Help to buy” schemes:
Affordable Home Ownership Options Scheme
Households Unable to Afford (all households)
Households Unable to Afford (private renters)
Help to Buy: Equity Loan (20%)
Help to Buy: Shared Ownership (50%)
First Homes (30% discount)
Help to Buy: Shared Ownership (25%)
Rent to Buy (80% of median rent)
So my first point is a simple one: However much we are told WBC are trying to build “affordable homes for our children and our grandchildren”. The people buying into these schemes are being sold long term tenancy via leasehold, such as the examples above, via a very expensive credit system if they are even able to find the required deposit.
CPRE go on to say: “To begin delivering the homes we need at the pace we need them, the government should abandon centralised housing targets and ensure planning remains locally-led with local authorities and communities empowered to have a say in what gets built where”.
Now take a look at this definition of “Localism” from the Local Government Association: “The Localism Act seeks to give effect to the Government's ambitions to decentralise power away from Whitehall and back into the hands of local councils, communities and individuals to act on local priorities”.
Of particular interest to me, having spent many hours working alongside many others from our local community to produce the Arborfield and Barkham Neighbourhood Plan, is a short explanation of how these Neighbourhood Plans are supposed to work:
“Instead of local people being told what to do, the Government thinks that local communities should have genuine opportunities to influence the future of the places where they live. The Act introduces a new right for communities to draw up a neighbourhood plan. Neighbourhood planning will allow communities, both residents, employees and business, to come together through a local parish council or neighbourhood forum and say where they think new houses, businesses and shops should go – and what they should look like”.
In December 2019, after much local consultation we published our draft plan. This Draft Neighbourhood Plan was then independently inspected. After being passed by the inspector, we then had a referendum, which was passed by an overwhelming majority. The final stage was for the Local Planning Authority (in this case Wokingham Borough Council) to “Make” the plan, at which point it became part of the local planning guidance:
It was therefore of great interest to me, if not some surprise, to hear Ian Church, Team Manager of the Wokingham Growth and Delivery Team, quote from our Neighbourhood Plan the following policies as part of a justification for rejection of planning permission for “affordable” flats on the edge of the Garrison SDL. Here is a quick reminder of what those policies say:
· IRS1: a) Preserve the character and appearance of the countryside; and b) Not lead to the physical, visual or perceived coalescence of existing settlements.
· IRS2: Development proposals must recognise, respect and preserve the identity and rural setting of settlements, with regard to: a) Scale and form of the development b) Density of the development c) Materials used in the development to reflect local character d) Tree and hedgerow planting that reinforces and reflects local biodiversity in the parishes and e) The distinctive character of the varied landscapes of the area and outstanding views.
· IRS3: Development proposals should conserve and enhance the natural environment and green spaces of the area, specifically: a) Ensure that there no loss of biodiversity and normally provide a net gain.
So WBC are happy to quote our policies when it suits them, but then reject them when it doesn’t? On the 12th November 2021 at the Extraordinary Executive Meeting called to pass the Revised Local Plan Update, I asked the following question:
“Why have Wokingham Borough Council chosen to ignore the views of local residents as expressed in the Arborfield and Barkham Neighbourhood Plan regarding the site of a new "Garden Village" at Hall Farm? I refer specifically to the following key policies: IRS1, IRS2, IRS3”.
Some key points I would take from the answers given by Councillor Wayne Smith, Executive Member for Planning and Enforcement, are as follows:
“Through previous consultation on the local plan, the most supported approach was for development needs to be met through large scale developments, where infrastructure could be planned, funded and provided alongside.”
If these “large scale” SDLs are so successful, why do we need yet another one? We already have four of them! If the infrastructure delivery by the developers is so successful why are we still waiting for virtually all the infrastructure that was promised at Arborfield Green? If the costs of the infrastructure are such a major hinderance to getting on and building, why not fully exploit and utilize the infrastructure already built? We are endlessly fed the line that this is the way to build, but what of the alternatives? Why not more small developments spread more evenly and MORE EQUITABLY around the whole of the Borough? Why have we in the South of the Borough got to be the ones to put up with up to 30 years of disruption from major construction while the North of the Borough gets none? How is any of this consistent with the core principles of Localism?
“The area of land at Hall Farm / Loddon Valley is one of three large scale opportunities we have considered, the others being: land situated to the north of Wokingham (between the M4 and A329(M)) known as Ashridge; and land to the east of Twyford in Ruscombe Parish. At least one of these areas is required to meet the housing expectations”.
So why are these other areas not being promoted by WBC to the same extent as Hall Farm? Why are they in fact largely ignored, glossed over and hidden from scrutiny? If we really must have another large scale SDL (which has never properly been justified) why does it have to be at Hall Farm, where ALL THE INFRASRTUCTURE WILL NEED TO BE BUILT FROM SCRATCH?