Dan Starr: George Osborne doesn’t think residents should decide what’s best for Uttlesford

A number of this week’s budget announcements are a full-frontal assault on localism. The much promoted recent localism and devolution agendas have been well and truly shoved to one side by George Osborne’s desire to pander to the major developers. And now the government intends to intervene in local planning decisions, override residents’ needs, and give developers free-rein. It will be a development free-for-all, increasingly with decisions being taken nationally not locally.

Two days after the July budget, George Osborne released his more aggressive house-building proposals as part of his “Fixing The Foundations” policy paper. It contains nothing less than a further full-frontal assault on the Tory shires of England. And probably something the Conservatives couldn’t have got away with under the coalition, but now they are unfettered.

And the house-builders are happy. Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, is quoted as saying: “The industry welcomes the changes announced by government today and looks forward to working with them to develop the detail.” And Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, has said that the government had “really hit the nail on the head for a number of planning issues”.

In a nutshell here is what the government intends to do and what it may mean for us in Uttlesford:

  • More houses to be built: The government says it will be more aggressive in forcing District Councils to meet the housing needs of adjoining districts. Braintree, Harlow, East Herts and South Cambs all have greater local housings need than Uttlesford, so it is likely we’ll be expected to build houses for them as well. For example according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) 1,000 people moved from East Herts to Uttlesford last year.
  • Even more houses for commuter areas like Uttlesford: The government has said it will stop London expanding by protecting greenbelt but instead it wants to focus ‘higher density’ development in commuter areas near main road and rail links. The London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor north of Bishops Stortford would be classified as fitting the government’s criteria – and Boris has been pushing for it to be developed to help with London’s problems. In the south the A120 bisects the district, and in the west the M11 and railway run north-south. Under the government’s plans these areas should probably expect even more development.
  • Nationalisation of the planning system by stealth: The government wants to take away more planning decisions from local councils and residents. These include stronger direct government intervention where councils that don’t approve enough new houses fast enough for their liking. Also proposed are a fast-track process for pushing through approvals; and ‘automatic’ planning permission for developers to flip brownfield (employment) sites to housing. Additionally a Council will be required to keep a list of all vacant employment sites and must allow house-building on 90% of them by 2020.
  • Removing developer contributions to our infrastructure: Our roads, schools, and doctors’ surgeries all get more crowded when new houses are built. Developers are required to contribute to the costs of expanding these so that existing residents aren’t disadvantaged. The government says it will wipe away these contributions for any new starter homes built so that these homes can be discounted. Whilst affordable homes are important, so are the school places, roads and medical places for their residents. If developers don’t pay for these, then who will? Residents via increased council taxes? Why is the government passing laws to allow developers and landowners to pocket the same profits at our expense? Osborne keeps saying “we’re all in this together.” I don’t think so.
  • Intervention in Local Plans: George Osborne says he’ll set a deadline for Councils to deliver their up-to-date Local Plans, and if they don’t the government will impose one on locals. UDC must already be in special measures – the UDC Administration has been unable to deliver a new Local Plan in 7 years and their new draft was rejected last year after wasting £2m of our money. Will this failure in long-range planning cause a national plan to be dumped on Uttlesford residents?

The intervention in Local Plans is the kicker. All of the other points above may be moot if the government imposes a Local Plan on us. They can just decide what they want to do to Uttlesford. Localism has clearly been too successful, and they want to take it back.

In summary these measures nationalise large parts of planning, and remove local voices, needs and decisions from the process. Understandably the house-builders are very happy.

But at this point George Osborne’s proposals are just that, proposals; they need to be passed in to law by MPs. And these proposals will be controversial. They are likely to bring Osborne into conflict with some of his own MPs, councillors, residents, activists and conservation groups such as the National Trust. How will our MP vote?

Unfortunately our current local Conservative administration may just bow under the pressure from their Westminster political leaders as they have done for the last 8 years. However we will continue to fight for localism, residents and protecting our voices.

We pay our taxes. Why aren’t they working for us?