Nimbyism or Neighbourhood?

The article below is a reproduction of the original by Michael Aaronson, chair of Normandy Action Group on Nextdoor Normandy.

“My post reporting the inclusion of a ‘village extension’ in Normandy/Flexford as part of the latest proposals from Guildford Borough Council (GBC) to the Inspector who is examining their Local Plan was aimed at encouraging Nextdoor subscribers wanting to know more to sign up to the Normandy Action Group (NAG) Newsletter. (Many thanks to those who did.) Note that NAG quite deliberately has not taken a position on whether this proposed development is a good thing or a bad thing; we don’t know enough about it yet and in any case our aim, as expressed on our website, is “to keep local residents as informed as possible about planning matters and empowered to decide for themselves about development policies and plans.”

However in view of the comments the post provoked I thought I would offer my own thoughts on the subject. In weighing a proposal such as this I would always ask two questions: has it come forward in a good way or a bad way, and will we as a community have a chance to influence the outcomes it could deliver for the common good?

On the first point it is clear that GBC continues to duck the challenge of a Master Plan for Guildford town centre that would allow imaginative development of currently neglected sites to provide housing that people – especially young people – could afford in a place where they want to live. The tendency of this Council throughout the whole Local Plan process over the last few years has been to reach for the easy option of hiving off a portion of the Green Belt – which the big developers love because it plays to their business model of a profit margin of at least 20%. Brownfield sites, on the other hand, require a higher degree of creativity to be developed and are less profitable too, as the site value uplift when planning permission for housing development is granted is considerably less than it is on a greenfield site.

So I think this proposal has come forward in a bad way; it smacks of desperation on GBC’s part to pluck it out of nowhere when it has not featured in any of the versions of the Local Plan that have gone out to public consultation. There are also a number of factors that make it far more problematic as a site than GBC has acknowledged, among them: traffic management challenges in Glaziers Lane, proximity to the adjacent Strawberry Farm waste management site, adverse effect on the nearby Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (to reach the target of 105 homes it will be necessary to build 3 or even 4 storeys, which will have a dramatic effect on the vista from the Hog’s Back), and finally the lack of any truly “exceptional circumstances” that would justify taking this land out of the Green Belt (and in the process adversely affecting the openness between Normandy and Flexford that GBC’s own Planning Officers have cited in rejecting recent planning applications for that same site).

But most important of all, because of the way the site has been introduced into the planning process we the inhabitants of Normandy/Flexford have been denied the opportunity to comment on it. We can’t make representations at the public hearings because we are not registered to do so – because there was nothing in the Plan that was submitted to the Inspector that suggested we would need to be. If as a result of the Examination the site is included in the Plan there will have to be further public consultation – but by then it will be very late in the day and pretty well a fait accompli.

This leads into my second point, about the potential value of the site to the community. Despite all the issues highlighted above, I could still be persuaded that this development was beneficial, provided I felt we could have some say in the shape and form it took. Will it include the provision of affordable homes for those who need them? Will it include some amenities that will be of benefit to all? Will it employ the most up-to-date environmentally-friendly and sustainable building methods? Will the developers be held to their commitments regarding affordable housing and infrastructure improvements? As things stand, and based on the track record of most so-called ‘development’ in this part of the world, I have my doubts. Developers mount slick PR campaigns that pass for public consultation, but our ability to have any real impact on what they do is very limited. And the loopholes that allow them to wriggle out of their social commitments are also very wide.

This might be different if we as a community had our own Neighbourhood Plan, which would give us more of a say in the form development took and more power to hold developers to account. This is not a simple thing; it takes time, costs money, and requires communities to balance different and often competing interests. And it would still need to be consistent with and help deliver on GBC’s overall requirements, so it’s not simply a crafty way of declaring independence. Above all it would require us as a community to engage in a conversation about what we want, without calling each other names, and it would take a great deal of leadership from all of us. Are we ready for that?”

County council demands money with menaces

Our Surrey county councillor has circulated an email to residents in his wards (see extract below) recently, presenting the pros and cons and attempting to explain why Surrey County Council [SCC] is proposing a county-wide referendum for a 15% increase in the county precept to be levied on residents via their Council Tax bills. His explanation illustrates the conundrum faced by councils that have followed the Government mantra of ‘austerity’ to face yet more severe cuts demanded at the local level whilst Whitehall gets off relatively lightly, if not scot-free. However, the message is couched as a threat, “pay up or we’ll slash familiar services and you won’t like that will you” and that does not chime well with residents that are aware the council leader awarded himself a 60% pay rise in 2014 and where Surrey County Councillors were paid nearly £2million and its leader was paid the third highest rate in the south east of England in 2015. Read on and judge for yourselves.

“Over the past six years SCC has done what the Government has asked, and has reduced its costs by £70 million a year, for each of the past six years, so accumulated savings in costs of over £450 million per year (N.B. on a budget of some £2,000 million). In essence the amount of money that the Council spends today is the same, in cash terms, that it spent six years ago.”

“Each year the Government publishes a draft of what money it is prepared to give each Local Council, and has been in the process of reducing the Government grant to SCC from £151 million a year to zero. We are still awaiting the final settlement for the year to come and, if there is no change of heart on the part of the government, SCC will have a shortfall in the coming year of some £93 million.”

“There are only four sources of income to the Council:

  • Government Grants and
  • Business Rates (both of which SCC has no control over);
  • a small amount of money raised through fees and charges;
  • Council Tax, the main source of income, where the amount that can be increased is limited by the Government.

That limit has been set at 5% of this year, but an increase of 5% would only raise about a third of the shortfall. The only way that a Council can consider a Council Tax increase beyond the minimum is to hold a Referendum.”

“So SCC will now consider holding a County Wide Referendum on the future of Public Services in Surrey, asking voters if they will give approval to a Council Tax increase of 15%. The alternative will be an increase of 5% (the maximum allowed without a referendum).”

“If the 15% increase is approved by voters by a “Yes” vote, that will raise sufficient income £93 million a year) to maintain existing public services, including the extra costs being driven by demand for Adult Social Care services and Children’s services.”

“If the vote is “No” then a 5% increase will be the result. However, that will still leave SCC with a £60 million shortfall in this year.”

“By law, a Council is not allowed to set a deficit budget. It must legally set a budget for its expenditure and how much income it will get. It is not allowed by law (unlike the Government) to borrow the difference.”

“So if there is “only” a 5% increase, that will have to be accompanied by severe reductions across all council services and, although the details have not yet been announced, what should be expected will include:

  • Closure of some fire stations
  • Closure of MOST of the libraries, probably leaving just one in each main town
  • Closure of probably half the recycling centres
  • Elimination of the remaining subsidies of uneconomic rural bus routes
  • Severe reductions in road and pavement improvement plans, and less road safety schemes

The Council will have to concentrate the available funds on the statutory services of Adult and Children’s social services.”

“So the expression “between a rock and a hard place” comes to mind. If there is a referendum (assuming the Government does not give extra funds, and enough to avert the above) the county council will all have a hard choice to make. In essence, whether residents personally are prepared to pay an extra 10% increase in Council Tax (the difference between 15% and the 5%) to keep services more or less as they are or that residents are not prepared to pay the extra and accept the consequences to public services, in the knowledge that SCC will simply not have the money available to continue. That option will be a 5% increase in Council Tax and cuts to services.”

“There will be more information over the coming weeks. It is hoped that the Government will finally see that it cannot pile on more and more legal responsibilities onto Councils (about 60 extra legal duties in the last few years) but without the ongoing finance to support those responsibilities.”

CoVoP comments on “land banking”

Just the other day an interesting email popped into the Inbox from Community Voice on Planning. They have concerns regarding the mis-match between planning permissions awarded for new housing and the annual delivery of new houses by the large house builders and CoVoP’s comments ran as follows:

Property Week reported in September that Housing & Planning minister Gavin Barwell had said that he wanted to crack down on developers that had a “habit of putting in planning applications, getting permission, getting uplift in their land value and then not doing anything”. The Local Government Association estimates there are a record 475,000 homes which have been given planning permission but have yet to be built.

Then last week (7 November 2016) there was an interesting programme on Channel 4 about the way in which developers are land banking housing permissions. Now Stewart Baseley, the Chairman of the Home Builders Federation has written to national newspapers [behind pay firewall] to claim that builders are not holding onto permissions. Meanwhile, on the BBC (Monday 14 November 2016), a representative of the Berkeley Group of developers has claimed that “there is not enough land being released and property taxes are too high “.

ITV News, (16 November 2016) reported that the Redfern investigation has – remarkably, some will argue – found no link between the levels of housing supply and home ownership. Instead it argues the biggest reason first-time buyers are struggling like never before is financial. They believe that more government investment is needed.

These developers are crying all the way to the bank. The profits of the main ten development companies have been stratospheric this year, yet house-building is still sluggish. The claim that property developers are not land banking is spurious, as any examination of their company accounts, or of Government statistics, where these transactions are noted, would lay bare the lie.

We should like to urge people to write to the Planning Minister, Gavin Barwell, and to the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Goverment, Sajid Javid, to remind them that land banking is part of the problem. This works to the advantage of the developers because they alone can dictate when this land is built on and by keeping supply short they are able to keep prices high and demand even more permissions. We need to refute this misleading information and to persuade the Ministers to amend the ridiculous planning legislation that has allowed this situation to develop. The 5 year land supply calculation must be amended to include all outline permissions granted to enable planning authorities to refuse further permissions on precious green spaces.

You can contact the Ministers through the Department for Communities and Local Government or you can write to your MP and ask them to take your letter to the Minister and to ask for a written reply. You could also ask them to raise a question in the house to either Gavin Barwell MP or Rt. Hon. Sajid Jarvid MP on this very point to request the Government to rectify the situation.

Whilst CoVoP understand that residents’ concerns may be local ones, we urge you to write and to challenge this viewpoint. We shall make no headway against the rapacity of the developers unless we fight our cause at this level across the country.

Please copy your letters to CoVoP so that we can see action being taken.”

Open Letter to Councillors

Dear Councillors,

On 24 May you are meeting to consider the Executive’s recommendation that the draft Submission Local Plan be issued for Regulation 19 public consultation. I know you have a huge amount of information to digest and to consider, but I am writing to urge you to look closely at the proposals for the so-called ‘Strategic Site’ (‘A46’) in Normandy Ward and ask yourselves whether you think they are reasonable and fair. They formed no part of the Regulation 18 public consultation in 2014 and therefore came out of the blue to local residents when this latest version of the Plan was published last month. Our MP, Jonathan Lord, has said he is “appalled and aghast at the proposals” (letter to constituents 3 May); both our Surrey County Councillor, Keith Witham, and our own Guildford Borough Councillor, David Bilbe, have said they oppose them (‘Surrey Advertiser’ 6 May, p2). At the GBC Executive meeting on 11 May Cllr Spooner acknowledged he had received numerous emails from local residents opposing the plans – he thought around 500. Continue reading

What’s in a Name?

Names matter – and it matters how they are used. I live in Normandy – that’s Normandy in Surrey rather than Normandy in France, by the way – an important difference when you are setting your SatNav. At least I thought I lived in Normandy, until earlier this month when Guildford Borough Council (GBC) published its latest draft Local Plan. This includes proposals to create a massive building site on the green fields between the two settlements of Normandy and Flexford, taking the whole of the resulting conurbation out of the Green Belt. Then I realised that according to GBC I actually live in Flexford; or at least that I live in Flexford for the purposes of assessing my village’s contribution to the openness of the Green Belt, but that I live in Normandy and Flexford for the purposes of evaluating whether I live in a sustainable community or not… Continue reading

Increasingly authoritarian

Some politicians seem to be ‘men on a mission’ and, yes. its mostly men. In a hurry to achieve an objective so they are voted in again in the next local or national electoral cycle and brook no opposition or delay.

Take the Chancellor. Apparently frustrated with local authorities who appear to be failing to deliver new Local Plans under the mired-in-the-courts National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] containing house building plans that roll back the Green Belt. Perhaps in his eyes they are failing to contribute to his need as manager of the economy to pump up GDP and reduce unemployment through the well-known multiplier effect of the building sector. Whatever it is, in a written statement to Parliament on 21 July 2015 the Government provided more information saying that “in cases where no local plan has been produced by early 2017—five years after the publication of the NPPF—we will intervene to arrange for the plan to be written, in consultation with local people, to accelerate production of a local plan.”

Continue reading

Lottery winner in my village?

A ‘lottery’ winner in Normandy? Never. Wouldn’t believe it.

However, if you are lucky enough to own a piece of a green field around here nowadays, you might come up for a multi-million jackpot.

Thanks to the local council’s current draft Local Plan earmarking 72.4 hectares of perfectly good Grade 3A agricultural land between our two settlements that fulfills three of the most important aspects of the Green Belt  as ‘safeguarded land’, that is, safeguarded for development over the next 18 years for up to 2,700 new homes, local land owners, house builders and developers are meeting in a perfect storm of speculation and outline planning applications.

Presumably this is what the change in planning regulation heralded by the introduction of the NPPF was intended to create. Large-scale loss of productive agricultural land in a world faced with climate change to low-density urban sprawl is damaging to our food security but the increasingly authoritarian leaders of this government and our local council appear in thrall to their own economic and political dogma.

Why Guildford?

The new planning and infrastructure Tsar appointed by the Chancellor wants 40 affluent southern towns including Guildford to double in size. Guildford doesn’t hit the national headlines very often, so why Guildford?

These things don’t happen overnight. It must have taken a while for George Osborne to negotiate the deal with Lord Adonis as the planning Tsar. The appointment must have been contemplated before Adonis made his own speech in the House of Lords, which was on 16 September and, of course, it was announced at the Tory conference on a key date for the Chancellor’s speech.

If you wanted to square the shires and tell them that they’d got a good deal with, for example, 693 homes per annum as we are in Guildford according to the final West Surrey SHMA, and lose no Tory votes either nationally or locally, how would you do it?

Continue reading

Housing zones won’t stop Green Belt grabbing

The Chancellor and the Housing Minister have popped their heads over the parapet as the initial shots in the election campaign are fired.  The ‘whizzy’ new idea is 10 housing zones outside London using ‘brownfield’ land; a shortlist of 29 areas has been published, each of which have bid to become one of the housing zones.  Housing Minister Brandon Lewis has been quoted as saying “this would protect the Green Belt“;  he must have been listening to the CPRE in part. Unfortunately, 10 zones with 2,000 houses each is a drop in the bucket compared to his and the Chancellor’s joint aspiration of 200,000 homes nationally on ‘brownfield’ land. In the meantime, where do the other 180,000 go? I know, in the Green Belt. Silly me. Continue reading

There are community boundaries, then there are community boundaries…

There’s a heated debate going on between some of our local residents about what constitutes the community boundary.  It’s been brought about by the local council’s need to develop a new Local Plan. The council would love to stuff as much new housing as it can into small villages all over the borough, either by relaxing planning rules within the village boundaries, or ear-marking large chunks of countryside and green fields and reserving them to receive thousands of new homes at some indeterminate point in the future, when other ear-marked development land is used up, or by appending chunks of the Green Belt to communities by extending their boundaries to include such land. Continue reading