People rightly complain that the additional housing being built is not matched by sufficient investment in infrastructure such as schools, medical services, and transport links, while the housing itself is often too expensive for the people in our town who need it. Frustrations are compounded by a sense that we, as local residents, have little control over what is built in Colchester and that our views aren’t adequately sought or listened to.
This sense of a lack of control and a dearth of investment is well-founded. In fact, local councils are set house building targets by central government. If they don’t come up with a plan to meet those targets (called a Local Plan), central government will simply impose one on them and councils end up without the legal power to prevent private developers building wherever they like. To make matters worse, the formula used to set the targets is based on a ratio of average local house prices to average local wages, meaning that places with high house prices like our region are always expected to build more, while wages constantly lag behind. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, commuter towns like Colchester get hit with a double whammy, because while house prices are high, local wages remain low since many people work in London or elsewhere. This is why our housing target tends to be around 1000 a year, while for the period 2016-2026 Barrow-in-Furness, for example, was set a housing target of zero!
All of this is compounded by the raid on local government finances since 2010. Before 2010, local government funding came largely from a central government grant, topped up by a small amount related to the number of houses built (called New Homes Bonus). Since then, the central government grant has been scrapped, so councils are now entirely reliant on New Homes Bonus and a share of local business rates for their funding. For example, Colchester Borough Council’s central government grant has been slashed from over £10m in 2011-12 to zero this year, therefore the New Homes Bonus accounts for nearly half of its funding. This means that local councils are now heavily incentivised to build lots of housing in order to pay for essential local services. Meanwhile, Essex Highways consistently fails to use its power to raise objections to new developments on the grounds that they will overburden our already overused roads.
What needs to change?
- A new funding settlement for local government which allows councils to fund essential services without relying on house building to do so (including funding which recognises that planning is a public service and should be funded as such, not reliant on income from private developers).
- Scrap the national formula currently used to set house building targets, as part of a wider strategy to re-balance the UK economy so that development isn’t always focused on London, the East and South East of England.
- Put control of development into the hands of communities and democratically-accountable public bodies by requiring local councils to set housing targets based on the type, size and tenure that local people need and can afford.
- Create new Public Development Corporations controlled by local councils with the legal power to buy up land at existing use values, grant planning permission and contract out construction to councils and private developers based on quality.
- Allow these new Public Development Corporations to borrow at low cost from Labour’s new regional investment banks to build necessary infrastructure.
- Create a new Community Participation Agency to give members of the local community a positive role in shaping the development of new housing, amenities, and infrastructure where they live.
- Introduce a form of “jury service” for planning, to ensure all members of the community – not just those with the most time or loudest voices – have the chance to participate in designing local and neighbourhood plans.
- Introduce a Future Generations Champion or Team in every local authority, tasked with representing the interests of children and future generations, so that long-term issues like climate change are taken into consideration.
What will this mean in Colchester?
- Power for our local council to control the number and types of houses that are built in our town, so that they serve the needs of the people of Colchester and help the thousands of people on our Housing Needs Register to get into secure housing they can afford.
- More control over local development for local people, so that residents in Colchester have more say over what happens to sites of particular value to them like Middlewick Ranges and the Cultural Quarter.
- Ensure that longer term thinking which takes into account major challenges like climate change is applied to development in Colchester, so that we don’t have short-term fixes like Essex Highways’ plans to simply fill in the St Botolph’s Roundabout underpass without improving pedestrian or cycling routes.
- Provide the necessary funding for infrastructure development to take the strain off our already overburdened roads and end our reliance on an Essex Highways department, which doesn’t do enough to address Colchester’s needs.
- Changes to compulsory purchase law could reduce the cost of building affordable housing by up to 50%, making it far easier to build the housing people in Colchester actually need.
One of the major proposed developments in our town that has generated the strongest public response is the plan for Middlewick Ranges.
Middlewick Ranges is a beautiful and important natural environment, which is held dear by the local community. Yet the plans for Middlewick are a microcosm of the various issues underlying our broken planning system and the ongoing failure to invest over the past decade by the Tories and Liberal Democrats in government.
Like all our public services, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has faced major cuts to its budgets in recent years. As a result, the MOD is currently seeking to sell off sites it owns across the country to housing developers – unfortunately including Middlewick Ranges.
Because our broken planning system places so much power in the hands of developers, there is little our borough council can do to prevent housing being built on Middlewick Ranges if the MOD is intent on selling it to a developer. Attempts by the Council to block development are liable to be overturned on appeal, or alternatively the developer can simply sit on the land for a few years until the opportunity to build on it arises.
Understandably, therefore, councillors and council officers sought to exert what little control they could over the process by reducing the MOD’s original proposal for 2,000 houses down to 1,000. In response to the plans, local Labour councillors for the area launched a petition and began to campaign to limit the number of houses built.
A public body battered by cuts is forced to sell off its assets. A local community and local councillors with little say over where development happens and little power to prevent developments they don’t want. A planning system which works for big developers, but not for local people and the local environment. In the longer term, the solution to the problems facing Middlewick Ranges requires a Labour government radically overhauling our broken planning system. In the short term, they require the MOD to take it off the table!
Another controversial issue when it comes to housing and development in Colchester are the proposed “Garden Communities”. These are plans to deliver the housing targets set for Colchester, Braintree and Tendring by central government by clubbing together and building larger stand-alone communities outside of the existing urban centres, rather than adding more housing to those centres.
As we have seen, when it comes to development, local councils don’t get to choose how many houses to build, they just get a (limited) say over how the targets they are set get delivered.
The rationale behind going down the Garden Communities route is that it gives the councils involved greater control over what gets built and provides a higher level of potential funding for infrastructure to support that new housing. The plan is for Colchester Borough Council, Braintree District Council, Tendring District Council, and Essex County Council to create a Locally-Led Development Corporation (LLDC) under their control, which would then buy up the necessary land and sell it on to developers and to the councils so they can build houses on it. This is in contrast to the usual process whereby developers buy up land and the council tries to manage which bits gets built on and what gets built there.
At the same time, by delivering larger developments in one go rather than adding piecemeal to existing urban areas, the councils hope to be able to access larger amounts of funding for infrastructure and deliver that as the communities are built, rather than infrastructure investment lagging behind as usually happens.
It is a big and ambitious project and as such it comes with bigger risks so the councils involved will be investing a lot. But simply adding housing to existing urban areas in a piecemeal fashion has its risks as well, not least in terms of adding to the pressure on existing infrastructure like roads, schools and medical services – and it is unlikely to deliver the same level of funding for infrastructure improvements.
In those difficult circumstances, our local councillors are trying to find the best solution they can and the Garden Communities certainly offer some exciting opportunities to get a level of infrastructure investment that our local area simply wouldn’t get otherwise.