HOUSING: Government puts ‘substantial’ pressure on borough home building

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THE pressure on local authorities to build homes is ‘substantial’ according to Wokingham borough council leader John Halsall.

He said the government determination to create 300,000 new homes meant that the new local plan, currently being prepared to release in draft form, had to include details of where roughly 14,000 would be built in Wokingham.

While last month plans for the South Wokingham Strategic Development Location were approved by the planning committee, Cllr Halsall said that there was a need to produce its local plan ‘post haste’ as its five-year land supply – used by the council to justify development plans in legal actions against speculative developers – will soon expire.

“Why are we not telling the Government to get stuffed? Wokingham has the disadvantage of being a very prosperous borough with a high level of education, and low levels of deprivation. It is very well managed by the borough council, and it’s a very desirable place to live,” Cllr Halsall said. “Almost every inch of the borough is an option to some developer.”

He said that while the council felt that even 600-700 new homes a year was excessive, without a plan the borough would face two, three or four times that number.

“The net effect is the local authority loses all control of its planning process, it gets passed to Whitehall,” he continued. “I’m sure Whitehall-controlled planned process will be considerably worse than our own in terms of local democracy and what people want.

“We will not be able to resist. If we allow speculative development to take place we would have no infrastructure payments.”

READ MORE: Councillors receive update on Wokingham’s draft local plan

Cllr Lindsay Ferris, leader of Wokingham Liberal Democrats said they have also pressed for lower housing numbers.

He said the last local plan took the number of homes in the borough past 72,000.

“It is now expected to grow to close to 85,000 to 90,000 by the end of this new local plan,” he said.

The councillor said the Ministry of Defence objections to a garden village in Grazeley set back the draft local plan update.

“This puts added pressure on Wokingham Borough Council to get things moving, otherwise developers will use a number of loop holes,” he said.

The Lib Dem leader said his group would have taken a stand against the development numbers, if they were running the council.

“We are now dependent on a Conservative administration to keep the level of homes to a more reasonable level, while their national masters are being financed by many of the developers wanting to build yet more homes,” he said.

“Wokingham borough is a semi-rural area with all the green spaces we want to protect.

“But with the addition of roughly 15,000 properties, our area will become increasingly more like inner and outer suburbia. We have to make a stand now to protect the overall nature of our area.”

The council’s vision is to try and minimise housing numbers but “we should also try to configure it in such a way that it allows for a higher level of affordable housing than we currently have,” Cllr Halsall said.

“It will fit in with our housing strategy to deliver council houses on an unprecedented scale for those on medium and low incomes. It will be skewed towards the first time buyer and those downsizing.”
Cllr Ferris said he would like to see more bungalows built.

“This would enable our older community to move out of their current homes and still be able to live in this area,” he said. “We all accept that additional homes are required, but they must meet real local need and not just fill developers’ pockets.”

READ MORE: Council scraps 15,000-home Grazeley development plan in favour of new sites near Shinfield, Arborfield and Sindlesham

Cllr Rachel Burgess, leader of Wokingham Labour called for more council homes.

“Too often in the past we have seen the term affordable housing used to describe housing that is far from affordable,” she said.

“We need to do much better in providing council houses.

“The borough is building the first 11 council houses it has built in over 20 years — a shocking state of affairs.”

The Labour leader said she was also concerned about the sustainability of the builds.

“We have to move away from a culture where merely meeting guidelines is good enough,” she said.

“We need to be aiming to set a standard which others aspire to follow.”

This includes creating safe routes for cyclists and walkers, and having strong policies for the handover of developments to the council, she said.

She added: “My fear is that whatever our local plan looks like, it will be ripped up by the new legislation that was provided for in the manifesto, which the local Conservatives campaigned for in the General Election.

“This legislation will allocate most of our borough as a “growth” area and the developers will be allowed to do what they want, where they want: a Conservative developers’ charter.”

READ MORE: Race for space continues as demand for housing exceeds supply

Cllr Ferris was also concerned about the planning reform.

It proposes to switch future planning to a zonal system – where land in a borough would allocated as a growth, renewal or protection area.

“Developers will by and large have greater freedom to build the homes that they want to build at the expense of local opinion and wishes,” he said.

“This is shameful and something I do not believe many people are aware of, as our minds have been on other issues this past 15 to 18 months.”

But Cllr Halsall felt that it was too early to take a view on the White Paper.

He stressed that while he stood up to the government last year over housing numbers and would do so again, the White Paper was “an apple pie paper” that promised lots that if delivered would delight everybody.

“I tend to feel that some of those objectives are in tension with one another,” he said, adding: “It’s really, really hard to be against an aspiration and we won’t know how those aspirations will are to be met until the detail comes out.”

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