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Where do the Local Election results leave the Local Plan?

An interesting question, to which there is sadly no hard and fast answer. The Revised Local Plan Update as proposed by the outgoing Conservative administration under John Halsall is dead, but a new Local Plan will presumably need to be formulated under the new administration led by Clive Jones.

Without a viable Plan, and a 5 year land supply to support it, the developers will have a field day proposing housing virtually anywhere they like, and appealing any decisions they don’t like, with a high probability of success. This was always the point of the Local Plan, to prevent unchecked development, and to ensure “the right homes in the right places”.

However, what defines “right” is a moot point. I attach a copy of a letter to Michael Gove (Secretary of State, Department for Levelling up, Communities, Housing) from Clive Jones (the new Leader of Wokingham Borough Council). In it he argues for a fairer Planning System that is “consistent and understandable”. He makes the point that National planning policy has lost sight of how development should be managed on a national scale. How the strict appliance of a mathematical formula simply reinforces past trends, demanding ever more housing from those places that are already seen to be delivering.

It is a system that is rigged, unfair and does little to solve the underlying problems of houses being unaffordable, unsustainable and unavailable. (Never mind all the associated problems of pollution, climate change, food insecurity, net biodiversity loss and destruction of the countryside). So how did we get here, and more importantly, how do we move on?

A few facts to set the scene:

  • Property developers have donated £11m to the Tory party since Boris Johnson became leader

  • An incredible nine out of 10 planning applications are approved.

  • There are 200,000 long-term vacant dwellings in England

  • London has more bedrooms than people, even if no one shared a bedroom

  • Help-to-buy for first-timers added 10% to prices.

  • The £17bn spent on housing benefit inflates prices by encouraging landlords to buy more, their rents guaranteed by the state.

  • The demise of social housing sits right at the heart of the housing catastrophe – right-to-buy cutting it to just 17% of homes in England, with only 6,287 new social homes built in 2019.

  • Rightmove said that asking prices had jumped by 2.1 per cent over the past month — equivalent to a £7,400 increase — to take the cost of the average home to nearly £368,000. The figures mean that the average homeowner has earned more from their property since the pandemic began than the average worker has taken home in pay.

  • The Elizabeth Line officially opened today, 24th May, but the effect is not just shorter journey times, there is also a corresponding rise in house prices.

Meg Eglington, a senior research analyst at JLL, predicts that once trains start to run across the network we will see more house price growth. “These areas are now appealing to a new group of investors, homeowners and tenants, waiting for the project to complete before moving in,” she says. “As Crossrail nears completion, residential areas at stations along the line have re-emerged on people’s radars, shorter commute times meaning areas previously less well connected can now compete with higher-value commuter hotspots. Even those people who are now working more flexibly expect a comfortable, fast and reliable commute when they do need to travel. This will ensure that property values continue to benefit from the Crossrail ‘effect’ for years to come.”

So this is where we are, how do we get to where we want to be? More Social Housing? Allow building on Green Belt? Seek out more Brownfield sites? More “Garden Cities”? Allow communities to decide for themselves what housing mix is required, and where it will go?

Personally I would suggest more “Garden Cities”, since as John Halsall was so keen to point out “building at scale is the way to ensure good infrastructure”. Personally I would move the Houses of Lords and the Commons to the Midlands, perhaps take the Bank of England with them, leave London to become a Garden City, and try to achieve some real “Levelling up”.

I would accept that this would require serious long term planning, however, it would present an opportunity for things like good quality efficient and effective public transport systems going in at the earliest opportunity and a sustainable energy system going in at the same time. Sadly, private developers are not going to be keen on this as it costs a lot of money up front and does not give quick profits. Perhaps this is something that will have to wait for a new National Government with a different set of priorities?

In the medium term I would suggest brownfield sites are hugely underutilised. Sadly, once again it is harder work and less profitable than building on greenfield sites, but then what profit is worth costing the earth?

In the short term we need a realistic assessment of housing numbers, to be weighed properly against housing need, not developer greed. This is something Clive Jones addresses in his letter to Michael Gove, but which as yet remains a very blunt instrument. 2000 houses are achievable at a number of identified sites across the borough. 4500 houses presupposes it has to be Hall Farm as nowhere else can accommodate that number.

As highlighted above, the Elizabeth Line is set to benefit the communities nearest to it in a very big way. It makes sense to me to use that benefit for the good of the borough as a whole, since the housing numbers are applied to the borough as a whole. It also has the potential to get people out of their cars, which has to be a good thing for all of us.

To my mind that means Twyford is the best place in Wokingham to build a new SDL. As pointed out many times, Green Belt would need to be used, requiring “special circumstances” but this could be exchanged for land at Grazeley (which cannot be built on anyway). Or there is Ashridge.

What is certain is that housing targets are NOT the solution.

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