What legacy will the rush to build houses leave for the next generation?

Ian Briggs

Many rural and semi-rural localities are struggling to cope with the increasing number of applications for potential new housing developments, a proportion of which seem to defy logic and sound planning sense when matched against local knowledge and established patterns of socialisation. On one hand it makes sense to seek stimulation to a fragile and unpredictable economy through relaxing planning mechanisms and encouraging developers to build and meet the known housing gap. But on the other hand some decisions to allow the building of new homes on land and in localities that is less than ideal will certainly bring further complex problems to address in the future.

Although the rate of new build properties between 2009 and 2010 was at the lowest for half a century, the pace has increased markedly since 2012 with some localities reporting initial approaches for development increasing in some rural localities to a rate of more than one a month. Inevitably it is the localities that are offering the highest return for developers that are attracting the most attention. Building houses quickly, and then selling them quickly is a certain way of both stimulating the economy as well as offering good news for some existing home owners and those new to the market, plus those who have to move for employment reasons. The free availability of data that points to ‘post code’ areas that attract the swiftest sales and not always the highest transaction price is encouraging landowners and developers to seek approvals in places that might not always be the most logical and appropriate to build in but offer the greatest and swiftest return on investment by the builder and landowner.

As planning authorities are slowly getting to grips with the requirement to identify land appropriate for development under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and putting forward their proposals to the Planning Inspectorate for approval, the gap remains open for developers to seek approvals in places where despite local opposition developers are likely to gain approval for development. The trickle of disapproving comments from government suggesting that local councils are slow to respond ring a little hollow when the practical difficulties of securing a workable plan to identify priority localities is explored in detail. Even for relatively small councils, especially in rural areas, the cost and time needed to openly consult with local communities in identifying local priorities for the release of land for development is debilitating, time consuming and in all cases very expensive at a time when money is tight.

Whilst this search for an agreeable and workable plan is going on many local authorities are struggling to cope with the massive increase in proposals currently being presented, in the case of one council alone Planning Committees have had to be scheduled weekly rather than monthly to cope with the volume of applications. On top of this is the reluctance to dismiss applications that might be less than ideal when faced with mounting legal bills to defend against appeals is emptying budgets at an alarming rate.

Few could deny the need for a faster pace in development, indeed many communities are willing to absorb a managed level of new housing to keep villages and small towns sustainable but the longer term implications of some ‘on stream’ developments are concerning.

A development that brings 85 new houses into an established rural or semi-rural community might at one level be seen as no big issue, especially with some urban and semi urban localities facing development proposals that bring in new estates with hundreds of new houses, but 85 new dwellings can be an increase of up to 25% of the local housing numbers and the potential impact this can bring with it is hard to forecast accurately. Some studies suggest that in rural areas new inward migrants from urban areas can take over ten years to be fully integrated into community life and in other cases there is a suggestion that new migrants into rural settings fail to see existing community facilities as being appropriate for their needs and bring demands for new community facilities that are attached exclusively to their new development properties. Additional new facilities in new development areas can be often sought that are only within the scope of the new development and not orientated towards wider integration into existing communities. “This is our play area and not yours” syndrome!

This is further complicated by the tendency for new housing developments in rural and semi-rural areas to perform the function of being dormitories for larger neighbouring urban centres increasing pressures on roads and public transport. Acting as dormitories they are bringing with them different social and economic patterns that are in direct contrast to established patterns of life within rural localities. Many planners together with developers make the assumption that local community assets are sustained by increased development but some evidence suggests the opposite is true. Longer travelling times to work and schools restrict the access to many local social activities – again, a study of one locality that is expanding rapidly demonstrates that younger people see activities and social assets such as youth and sports clubs are easier accessed closer to the place of education than the place of residence. Socialisation patterns for longer distance commuters suggest that a greater benefit can be seen in accessing facilities close to the place of work as being better and more convenient than accessing sports and social activities close to home – destroying the argument that rapid increases in housing development make local assets and facilities more sustainable.

This can be addressed to some extent by taking a more sympathetic and systematic approach to the ‘housing mix’ in new developments. Recently we have seen some moderately large scale development that is aimed solely at the commuter where there is a high level of standardisation in the housing mix with little or nothing to attract the actively retired or the home based worker, despite evidence that many local people are actively seeking to downsize or shift their economic patterns yet wish to stay firmly within a community that they feel very much part of. On top of this the ONS data now suggests that over 13million people who are in employment are homeworkers and of these 65% are male, challenging the stereotype that homeworkers are women and second wage earners. That some developers are lacking in imagination to offer development plans that have a housing mix that fits with local economic patterns and needs is a matter of some concern that will take some time to work through and new policies and planning practices will have to be developed that cope with having the wrong sort of housing in the wrong place. These are very difficult issues to construct effective challenges by local communities to planning applications coming forward as they are ‘in the future issues’ and often contradict data that is presented by applicants to support their applications at a time when planners and councillors on planning committees are rushed off their feet under the incessant onslaught of applications.

As landscape and visual appearance issues become weaker in challenging planning applications in rural areas, trying to determine negative social impact is also problematic. There might be a clever sleight of hand here that is very much to the advantage of developers – to determine negative social impact prior to development is a bit like trying to guess exactly what type of people will migrate into newly developed areas. However it seems that some evidence exists that challenges claims for positive social impact of new development could be correspondingly weak as well.

All this means that studies of newly developed areas in rural communities is likely to become a hot topic for research and understanding in years to come, the intended benefits of development will undoubtedly have short and medium term economic benefits to the wider economy but we might be storing up even larger and more expensive demands upon the public purse in years to come when we face the challenge of some of the social and environmental challenges that emerge downstream of new house building currently taking place.

This is less of ‘not in my backyard’ as many communities welcome new development – as long as it is well managed, sympathetic to local conditions and affords mechanisms for sound and proper integration into well-established communities and not something that grafts urban living onto rural lifestyles – it is more a call to think about the longer term implications for development in rural communities. If we don’t we could face years of putting right some of the decisions taking place now.

briggsIan Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

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