York green belt housing plan ‘is deplorable and will not deliver’

13 May 2013 @ 4.38 pm
| Opinion, Property
New homes in Lilbourne Drive, York. Photograph: Google
New homes in Lilbourne Drive, York. Photograph: Google

York council’s proposal to allow house building on the green belt is part of a “defective” new Local Plan that will not deliver the new homes we need, argues entrepreneur and former house builder Matthew Laverack

The sacrifice of protected countryside land for housebuilding is a manifestation of failure – and a betrayal of the fundamental core planning principle that existing vacant sites within the city should be built out before considering any further urban expansion.

It is precisely because of unrealistic demands in respect of affordable housing, infra-structure and other obligations that developers have shunned the available sites in York.

The Labour-controlled council hope that by allocating countryside for housing, owners of farmland will sell for slightly more than agricultural value (rather than the true value of building land) in order that the council’s “sacred-cow” affordable housing policies will be shown to be workable.

This is deplorable. Quite apart from anything else it will effectively condemn York Central, British Sugar, Nestlé and other difficult sites to indefinite stagnation. Who would choose to build here if there is a nice easy open green field to build on at a knock-down price?

The vast bulk of this proposed housebuilding depends on private enterprise and (apart from a couple of extraordinary examples where local firms have got into bed with the council on questionable projects) the private sector does not have the appetite for a major programme of construction because the effort and risks far outweigh the rewards.

The allocation of cheap countryside land to entice the private sector will not work in any event because at the same time further burdens are to be imposed in the form of a new infra-structure levy and absurdly expensive sustainability codes that will lead to a termination of most speculative housebuilding after 2016.

City of York Council leader James Alexander could surrender half the farmland in the York green belt and announce a million new homes if he wished it will amount to nothing. It is all words and coloured maps. What he can’t do is build anything himself or force an unwilling private sector to do his bidding.

The new Local Plan is defective and will not deliver.

York council cabinet member for housing, Coun Tracey Simpson-Laing, leader James Alexander and Local Plan working group chair Dave Merrett promoted the new scheme. Photograph: City of York Council
York council cabinet member for housing, Coun Tracey Simpson-Laing, leader James Alexander and Local Plan working group chair Dave Merrett promoted the new scheme. Photograph: City of York Council

The wider public have no idea of the difficulties facing housebuilders or the disaster that we face. Politicians have screwed up big time. They all presumed that the private sector was a cow to be milked ad-infinitum. They thought they could keep on heaping more and more demands on the industry and that the product would still be forthcoming.

None of them thought for one minute that firms would actually say “No! I’ve had enough. I am not going to continue. I am closing down.” But that is where we are right now.

Unless the burdens that have been imposed over the last 10 to 15 years are removed you can kiss goodbye to housebuilding and similarly kiss goodbye to a national economic recovery. The allocation of easy green belt land will make no difference in the end.

There are those like John Hocking of the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust who insist that the lack of housebuilding is nothing to do with onerous planning policies but all the result of a lack of finance and lack of cheap land. This is foolish. Finance is not available because the lenders will not lend when the onerous policies make ventures too risky! Landowners will not sell at a knock down price because – why should they?

John Hocking went on Radio York to say that developers should “build for the benefit of the wider community”. No they shouldn’t. That is not their job. They are private firms.

Their obligation is to act in the best interests of that firm. It is charitable organisations like JRHT that exist to act in the interests of the community. That is their job. That is why some receive massive public funds (largely from the taxes paid by successful private firms) to enable them to do what they do – including paying very generous salaries and benefits to the likes of Housing Association bosses.

Out here in the real world we earn every penny of our income. And if we don’t perform we don’t eat. If we fail we lose everything – our savings, our homes, the lot.

And they wonder why no one is building any more.