I am aware that development is a major subject of concern for my constituents, not least because of the numbers of e-mails and letters I have received on the subject. So far, I have met communities in Ashbury, Shrivenham, Watchfield, Great Coxwell, Faringdon, Stanford-in-the-Vale, Wantage, Grove, Sutton Courtenay and Letcombe Bassett to discuss their concerns. I have also received representations from Bourton, Blewbury, East Challow and Charney Bassett. It’s clear that this is an issue for communities across the Vale of White Horse area.
We still live in a largely rural area, and people’s concerns focus on a number of areas: the loss of our rural character; the strain on existing communities, particularly small villages, from substantial additional housing development; the impact of additional traffic, sometimes in places some distance from the new housing; and the impact on infrastructure, particularly roads and schools.
I understand these concerns and take them seriously. In order to try and address them, in recent weeks I have met the planning Minister, Nick Boles, as well as the Leader and Chief Executive of the Vale of White Horse District Council.
It may help if I explain a little of the context around the current situation, some of which you may be familiar with.
When the coalition came to power in 2010, house building had for some time fallen to its lowest level since the war. As a consequence, house prices in the south-east are very high, and it is difficult for many local people, particularly the young, to contemplate buying their own home. Even finding somewhere to rent is very difficult for many.
I therefore support the need to build more housing, but it must be proportionate, and local communities must have a say. To this end, we have put in place a much simpler planning framework, so that it is easier for non-experts to understand it and engage in the debate about where it is appropriate to build houses. We have also insisted that all development is “sustainable”, and can therefore be absorbed by local communities. And we have introduced the right for communities to establish neighbourhood plans, which can help direct development in a local community.
Turning to the problems that we face locally, we have two in particular. First, the Vale council does not have a local plan. A local plan would clearly show where new housing should be built, and enable speculative development to be turned down. The absence of a local plan means that developers can submit planning applications pretty much where they like. In South Oxfordshire, a local plan has been put in place, and as a consequence, I have not had any correspondence on this issue from that part of my constituency since the local plan was approved.
Secondly, the Vale has consistently missed its housing targets year on year. This means that there is a huge backlog of the number of houses that need to be built in this area. Broadly speaking, the Vale is expected to build some 13,000 houses from 2006 to 2029, a 23 year period. Under-delivery over the last few years, plus the need to maintain a housing supply for a five-year period, means that the Vale is now expected to build some 800 houses a year and must have in place planning permissions that are likely to realise that amount of housing.
The Vale therefore needs a local plan, and it needs to find a way to build some of the houses that the previous administration failed to build.
Shortly after the election in 2011, the new Conservative administration put forward the Interim Housing Supply Policy (IHSP), because there was no local plan in place. This would have allowed villages to nominate how many new houses they were able to take, and help the Vale reach its housing targets. However, it became clear during the process that the IHSP might not be approved by the Planning Inspector, and that the Vale would still need a local plan. With this in mind, the Vale decided to concentrate on developing a local plan instead. The IHSP process has led some people to believe that the number of houses allocated to each village during the process now has some weight as an official allocation. Unfortunately this is not the case as the IHSP now carries no weight in the ongoing process.
This process of developing a local plan is well underway, and the Vale should be able to submit a draft local plan by the end of the year. The draft local plan, even before it is finally approved, will allow the Vale to influence where development takes place, so I very much welcome the progress that has been made.
Neighbourhood Plans, developed in the process that has been introduced by the Coalition Government, will also influence the local plan, and the one area that is close to concluding a neighbourhood plan is Faringdon. Parish, community-led plans, unfortunately, do not have an influence on the local plan.
There are a number of other issues which people have raised.
There are two major developments that have been approved or are underway – Great Western Park and Grove Airfield, amounting to some 6,000 houses. Understandably, people ask why these developments do not count towards our housing targets. Unfortunately, the economic conditions mean that few of these houses have been built (indeed Grove airfield has yet to get underway at all) and so we still remain well behind in securing the houses our area needs. While the housing allocations which have already been approved can be included in the numbers which need to be achieved overall, that can only be done in a way which realistically reflects the numbers likely to be built in the next few years. Regrettably, that limits the impact of these approvals.
Some people have suggested that Abingdon would be a good place to put additional housing. But Abingdon suffers from severe restrictions, not least a very high flood risk and proximity to the green belt.
Concerns about adequate infrastructure are important. It should be stressed that no development will be allowed to proceed unless proper infrastructure has been approved. I should also stress that even where outline planning permission is granted for major developments, there are still many hurdles to overcome before a single house can be built. After all, both the developments in Great Western Park and Grove Airfield were already in the pipeline a decade ago, and one has not materialised while the other is only just underway. If outline planning permission is granted, building does not begin the next day, and a lot of work still needs to be done to address infrastructure issues and in particular to make sure that infrastructure is provided in a timely way. If these issues cannot be addressed then the building will not go ahead. In addition, it is worth noting that many current planning permissions are only granted for a short period of time, and will expire if the housing is not built.
I support the need for new houses in our area. Many villages do not have homes for young people, and many of our towns will benefit from new families moving to the area. However, I do not support development that is not properly planned and not supported by adequate infrastructure, so I will continue to represent my constituents’ concerns at both local and national level.
In particular, I have pressed Nick Boles, the planning minister, to reconsider our housing targets so that they can be based on genuine need, rather than aspirational predictions, and also asked whether we need to carry the current backlog into a new local plan, or whether we can effectively start afresh.
I now intend to have further meetings, with both the District and County Council, and with the planning Minister. I intend to put questions that hve been posed by my constituents, namely: why planning applications are looked at in isolation from each other; why we are not allowed to consider developments in the wider geographical area, namely expansion in Swindon, Reading and Oxford; why planning applications can be allowed without properly thought through strategies for roads (the A417 and A34 in particular) and schools; and once more about the actual number of houses needed for our area. I also want to press on whether planning applications can be put on hold while a local plan is being developed.
I will continue to keep my constituents informed as I work on these issues.
Ed Vaizey MP
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