Thursday, 17 March 2016

"a garden village in each rural local authority"

Everybody is aware of yesterday's surprise budget announcement of a new sugar tax. The national press were kept occupied as Jamie Oliver turned up outside Westminster to praise the new health measure. You can be sure that the government would not miss such an opportunity to sneak in some less popular measures while everyone is looking the other way and they have indeed brought forward a true whopper.

There has long been talk of "garden cities" as a way to build more houses in England. Legislation was introduced a few years ago to help establish new developments of over 10,000 homes such as the one at Ebbsfleet. The train station was established there in 2007 but to the embarrassment of planners only a few houses have been built in the area alongside where 15,000 homes were envisaged. Nevertheless, the governments ambition to build more garden cities has never been buried.

When a deadline was set for planning authorities to submit their local plans by early next year it marked a point at which garden cities were likely to resurface. Some councils such as Basildon and Brentwood have been finding it hard to prepare their plans because they would have to build on green belt to meet the number of houses deemed to fulfill their "Objectively Assessed Need." Authorities such as Uttelsford and Maldon have lower assessed housing needs but more rural land not marked as green belt so they would be obvious targets for new garden cities if the government was looking for locations. If any new developments had been announced there too soon, it would have been an opportunity for Basildon and Brentwood to use the principle of Duty to Cooperate to reduce their own housing target and have those authorities take up their unmet need. The government does not want them to get off so lightly. It therefore seemed likely that any plans for garden cities were going to materialise after the local plan deadline.

With a faltering global economy and a possible Brexit on the horizon the government has grown impatient. They want to keep economic growth going at any cost but it is hard to increase productivity. A much easier way to sustain growth is to simply build more houses as more people come to Britain from abroad. This was the background to a budget announcement yesterday that was expected to be so unpopular that despite its huge significance it was not even mentioned in Osborne's budget speech.

In a document entitled "Locally-led garden villages, towns and cities" the earlier support for garden cities was extended to smaller developments starting from only 1500 houses. The "Locally-led" adjective is of course the usual spin since there is no chance that any community of residents would welcome such large projects in their area. What they really mean is that they will induce increasingly cash-strapped councils to accept the deal with financial incentives. The exact details have not been provided, but there is already an invitation for councils to propose projects by July, despite the fact that new legislation will need to be brought in. When are they planning to fit in the public consultation?

There are more conditions for eligibility. The settlements must be free-standing, so urban extensions will not do, and they must be for housing in excess of Objectively Assessed Need. This explicitly prohibits the possibility that other councils can count the new garden villages as part of their unmet housing need but at the same time it makes explicit the shocking fact that the government wants to build more houses than the country needs for its population according to current growth rates. This can only mean that they want to accelerate migration into the country, something very much against their stated policy to reduce net migration to under 100,000 individuals per year.

However, the most unsettling part of the policy is where it has come from. Lord Matthew Taylor (Baron Taylor of Giss Moor), a lib/dem peer has been campaigning for exactly this policy for the last year. He had been an MP for Truro in Cornwall until 2010 before being granted a life peerage. He was then appointed to review Planning Guidance despite controversy over a possible conflict of interest due to him being a paid director and shareholder of Mayfield Market Towns Limited and chair of the National housing Federation. In February 2015 he produced a report lobbying for government support of garden villages which also came out in support of progressively building on green belt in what he called a "green belt deal." The report said that "a single new garden village in each rural English local authority would create around a million extra homes"

While it is not technically wrongful for a peer to lobby government on behalf of commercial interests, what this does show is that the garden village policy has been directly led by the aspirations of property developers rather than communities. Sadly it is the clearest sign yet that the governments election pledges to protect the green belt and reduce net migration are no more than public relations spin.

Predictably, the national media have almost completely ignored this new government policy which has more potential to change the landscape of England than anything else seen for quite some time.

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