Tuesday, 24 January 2012

How many new homes does Cornwall need?

Perhaps the most important single document of Cornwall Council's four year term is currently out for public consultation. The Core Strategy will guide development across Cornwall for the next 20 years.

At the heart of the document is the question of the level of growth and how the new homes should be distributed across the Duchy.

The major constraint is the National Planning Policy Framework. This is the government document that dictates that there should be a certain level of growth across the UK. This in turn means that Cornwall Council's subsidiary document must also propose some growth. But how much do we want?

I'll put my cards on the table. I'm in favour of growth - but only growth for a purpose. With around 31,000 people on the housing waiting list, we need to provide more affordable homes in all parts of Cornwall. But we need to be smarter than we have been in the past about the size of these properties and where they are built. In particular, we need more larger properties for the social rented sector. I understand that there is just one five bedroom house in Launceston, for example, despite there being at least six local families who need that size of property (and many more from across Cornwall).

We also need to make sure that there are affordable homes built in some of the villages. We cannot rely on new homes in order to make local facilities sustainable. But we can be certain that, without new families moving into our villages, local shops and pubs and schools will continue to struggle and close.

And the type of properties being built needs to be looked at too. Recently, social housing - in fact almost all new developments - have been boxy little houses and flats on the outskirts of town. Often with no facilities or bus connections, these can become cut off commuter villages. We need to make sure that when there is new development it comes equipped with all the local facilities to make the new householders part of a thriving community.

Part of the urge to approve lots of new homes - and supermarkets - is that the council can get planning gain from the developers. Technically known as section 106, these are developer contributions to local facilities and projects. In theory, these are meant only to offset the additional burdens on the local community caused by the development. But in practice, there has been more and more reliance on s106 to provide the basic infrastructure including schools and replacements for tired old leisure centres and community buildings. Developers, naturally, don't like paying for anything that puts a dent in their profits, but I think that the council has a duty to try to extract as much community benefit as possible from any development. In particular, because the more we get from one developer, the less we feel the need to approve the next one unless it is right for the local area.

And just as we should ensure we get the most bang for our buck in terms of s106, so councillors need to get as much affordable housing as possible. The official policy of the council is to get 50% affordable housing in developments of 2 or more houses across most built up areas. In some of the largest towns and in Truro, this is relaxed to 40% of developments of 5 or more. And there is further detail about the mix of affordable housing that should be delivered.

So far, so good.

But very often developers will complain that they cannot afford to build if the affordable housing level is put so high. The so-called viability test is used to try to get permission with a lower number for affordable homes. In general, I don't buy this. Although we need social housing, it should not come at any cost. The idea that, say, 15% of something is better than 50% of nothing has been accepted far too often. A green field can only be built on once and we should hold out a bit more for the full allocation. If some developments don't go ahead as a result then that is not the end of the world.

So whilst we need growth in order to provide affordable housing and community infrastructure, getting the right level of developer contribution for each development should mean that we can limit the number of new houses and the number of new supermarkets being built.

So how many houses should be built?

The figure being proposed in the core strategy contribution is 48,000 new homes over the next 20 years. As various people have noted, this is likely to take Cornwall on the path towards a population of more than a million by the end of this century. True, not many of us will be around to see that milestone surpassed. But even so, the development on the way will put a huge strain on roads, railways, schools and all the other bits of infrastructure in Cornwall. Not to mention the loss of lots of green space.

Some have suggested that this figure is too low and should be 52,000 or 57,000 or 60,000 or more. In the very unlikely event that Cornwall suddenly needs more houses during the course of the 20 years then the core strategy is not a barrier. The rules state that the proposed number of new houses can be increased but cannot be cut.

Personally, I think that the balance of the need for new affordable homes set against the fear of concreting over Cornwall leads to a total of around 32,000 to 38,000. But the bare figure is not the end of the story. Each community should be asked to consider how many homes it can accommodate and where they should go. In part, this will come as part of the new neighbourhood planning function of the Localism Act. But Cornwall Council should resist the urge to meddle and impose unrealistically high figures on each and every community.

If you want to have your say on the core strategy - whether you agree with my view or not - you can do so online here.

For more coverage of this debate, Cornish Zetetics posts regular opinions.

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