The local elections are over, but the local issues remain. Especially, what is to happen about the local housing plan update that the Council is still supposed to be ‘working on’ - while taking account of residents’ wishes, let’s hope. A year ago a WBC consultation found that the proposed development site with the most objections was Hall Farm/Loddon Valley. But that site is still in the draft housing plan. So what might the future hold?
Up at Shute End, the Lib Dem Council Executive are waiting for the Tory government to get its act together and sign off its much-trailed planning policy reforms. Clive Jones and his colleagues are hoping that will mean a lower housing requirement, reducing the threat of massive additional house-building in our area. They will then be able to say no to 4,500 houses at Hall Farm/Loddon Valley, as they desperately want to do (yes, really). They’ll have the get-out-of-jail card they want, so they won’t need to take a stand on that planning proposal themselves.
But there is one very large fly in the ointment. The Lib Dems failed to win an overall majority in the council elections just gone. For the next 12 months Clive Jones needs to rely on a ‘coalition’/‘partnership’/‘joint understanding’/‘good relationship’ (delete as appropriate) with the five Labour members of the council. We’d better look at what the Labour Party has been saying about new housing.
Over the last week or so, Labour’s leading spokespersons, including Keir Starmer himself, have been spelling out where they stand. Last weekend, he was asked by Sophy Ridge of Sky News: “These targets were in place until late last year, there weren’t enough houses being built then either, were there? If you really want to transform the housing market you have to overrule local concerns. Are you prepared to take on the NIMBYs?” Starmer replied: “Yes, so we need to get the target back.” He carefully worded his answer so as to refer to the national annual target of 300,000 new houses that Sunak's government ditched in December. He didn’t actually mention specific targets for individual local authorities. However, Starmer’s Shadow Housing Secretary Lisa Nandy was promising around the same time to ‘reintroduce requirements for local areas to make sure enough homes are being built’, through ‘Local Housing Need’ central targets for each council. On 3rd May Starmer returned to the question in the House of Commons, saying “[The PM's] decision to scrap housing targets is killing the dream of home ownership for a generation. Why does he not admit he got it wrong and reverse it?” This time Starmer made it quite clear he wanted housing targets (plural) back. That means a return to centrally imposed requirements for local authorities, just as Lisa Nandy said.
What’s more, influential Labour think tanks such as ‘Labour List’ make it very clear where they want houses built. Talking of the national housing target they say: ‘We should actually be aiming for around 442,000 every year – at the very least. This building should be concentrated in the high-demand, least-affordable areas where people actually want to live.’ And where is demand highest? In the South-East, in areas such as Wokingham Borough. Make no mistake, we are right in Labour’s gunsights, and if we object we will be called NIMBYs.
Build, build, build will be national Labour party policy. Will Wokingham’s Labour councillors loyally follow it? Why wouldn’t they? Rachel Burgess and her comrades can leverage their position as Clive Jones’ key allies, keeping his party in power. They will be able to pressurize the Council Executive to go into housing policy negotiations with Westminster on Labour’s terms: A lot of houses must be built, so the borough must accept a high housing target.
And that’s not all. By the end of 2024 the man who said ‘Yes’ to overruling local concerns will very likely be the new Prime Minister. Tory revisions of national planning policy (if they ever appear) will then be in the waste-basket. Today’s Labour Party policy will become central government policy. We’ll be back to when the previous Wokingham Council was taking on a far higher level of housing than it needed to, and there was a 2,000-home over-supply dumped on the Southern parishes (of course). It’s not hard to see what will happen with a big Labour government-imposed target figure. The Lib Dem executive will be offered another get-out-of-jail card, letting them leave Hall Farm/Loddon Valley in the local plan update. They will wring their hands and say ‘Sorry folks, it’s not us, it’s the government’. And it'll be party time at Reading University.
A grim prospect, but we at green4grow have to face up to the challenge of what the next year or so is going to throw at us. It won't be pretty.