Thursday, 23 February 2012

Develop brownfield sites first

The last government ended up in a right pickle over planning policy. Rather than engage local communities, they dictated house building targets from Whitehall, saying that 11,000 new homes would be built in Camborne and Redruth alone. Power was taken away from local councils and transferred to unelected regional quangos which led to a huge public backlash.

The new government has done much to return powers to local people. Regional Spatial Strategies were abolished within days and Councils were invited to develop their own plans. One thousand pages of centralised policy guidance is being streamlined with more control given to local councils. To ensure that councils listen to their communities there are new powers to enable parish councils or other groups to design their own “neighbourhood plans” which, if supported in a referendum, will have legal status in planning law.

At the beginning of this year, Cornwall Council published a consultation document for its “core strategy” on planning between now and 2030. The number of new houses planned in Camborne and Redruth has almost been cut in half to around 300 houses per year and most of the focus is now on building on derelict brownfield sites. The plan is a major improvement on what went before but I still think there is room for further improvement and this was the topic of discussion at a recent meeting of the Trelawny Alliance in Camborne.

There is no doubt that we have a shortage of housing and every week I have people struggling to find a suitable home approach me for help. However, the government is pursuing a number of other policies that may ease the pressure on our existing housing stock and these should also be factored in. First, there is a new £100 million fund to bring empty homes back in to use. Secondly, changes to the way housing benefit is paid will encourage people who have a house bigger than their needs to downsize and make way for a young family. Finally, banks and building societies will now be forced to pay council tax on homes they repossess so they have a strong incentive to get homes occupied again.

One of the problems about the future is that it is difficult to predict. That is why I have argued for two key amendments to the plan for Camborne and Redruth. First, there should be a principle of building on brownfield before greenfield sites. Secondly, there should be a delay in developing any greenfield sites until a mid-term review has been completed in ten years time. That would be a chance to take stock and reassess housing need and it would ensure that developers don’t cherry pick easy to develop greenfield sites while leaving the old derelict sites in a mess.

George Eustice can be contacted on george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or at 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall, TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.