Friday, 6 November 2009

Let local communities make decisions on housing

You can judge politicians by the consistency of the position they take on contentious issues. One of the things that irritates people about some MPs today is the sense that some of them change their tune on difficult issues depending on who they are talking to and so it is difficult to work out where they stand and whether they can be trusted.

One such issue is housing. In Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, we have a local need for some additional housing. A report by the former Kerrier Council suggested that there was a need for perhaps an additional 2000 homes in the Camborne and Redruth area over the next ten years or so. The problem is real. There are many families where young couples are unable to leave their parents’ home to have a place of their own. “Sofa surfing” is the term used to describe those who have to rough it at the homes of friends and family and it affects many in our community.

But what should have been a straight forward response at the local level to this problem has been turned into chaos by a crazy plan from the Labour government started by John Prescott. Rather than allowing local communities to decide what their local needs were and build what was required, instead they created a national “target” and set up a so called “Regional Assembly” that dictated from the centre that Camborne and Redruth must build 11,000 new homes, irrespective of local need. We only have 18,000 homes in Camborne and Redruth now, and so a two thirds increase of 11,000 homes is clearly barking.

There are three things I believe and I have been consistent from the start. Firstly, decisions should be taken locally and so I am absolutely opposed to the crackpot, centrally imposed government targets that have been forced on us. A future Conservative government would abolish the Regional Planning Bodies and the Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision making to local communities. Secondly, we do have a local need for some new housing in our area but the figure is way, way below what has been set out in the government target. Finally, I believe that we have a number of brown field sites in Camborne and Redruth and that should be where any new developments are built so that we protect our green spaces.

I have been saying the same three things to everyone, whether they are struggling to find a home or whether they are worried about over-development. In Cornwall we are fortunate in having the Trelawney Alliance to coordinate the campaign against mass house building targets and I supported their rally in the spring. The two strengths of the Trelawney Alliance are that they are not party political so are open to people of all political persuasions but they also take a balanced view and accept that there is a need for some new housing for local needs.

I don’t usually use this diary to comment on my opponents, but the twists and turns of the local Lib Dem MP on this issue have been truly bizarre. She says one thing in London and another thing in Cornwall.

First she said in parliament that she “fully supported” plans for mass housing in Camborne and Redruth and that her only worry was whether there was enough capacity in the building industry to lay the concrete fast enough. Then, in the face of local opposition, she claimed she had changed her mind and was going to oppose the central targets after all. Then, just weeks after pledging to support the Conservative policy on abolishing targets, she attacked the same Conservative policy in the Daily Mirror and said that Conservatives were “in denial” by opposing central targets. Now the Lib Dems have put out a leaflet stating precisely the reverse – and falsely claiming that the Conservative policy of sharing the benefits of new housing development would mean mass house building. The Lib Dems are all over the place.

I have always felt that one of the problems with our planning system is that there are too many win-lose scenarios. If a developer gets his plans through, he makes a good profit but the community can often feel that it is worse off and is paying the price with additional pressures on services. That is why the Conservatives have been looking at ways to make the planning system fairer and less confrontational and to share the benefits of small scale new developments. This means giving financial help to those communities who decide that they do need more housing to help cope with the requirement for additional services that comes with new developments.
It is an approach that is based on carrots rather than sticks and it makes a lot of sense. Local communities will have the final say but they will be supported and the financial benefits shared. Anyone who actually believed in liberal values and sustainable communities would support it.