ONLY A NEW GOVERNMENT CAN STOP EXCESS HOUSE BUILDING IN WYCHAVON, MP WARNS
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ONLY A NEW GOVERNMENT CAN STOP EXCESS HOUSE BUILDING IN WYCHAVON, MP WARNS

Addressing growing concern in Droitwich, Fernhill Heath, Bevere, Whittington, Norton-juxta-Kempsey and Evesham about the new housing being forced on these and other local communities, Peter Luff, MP for Mid Worcestershire, is calling for an early General Election.


In a joint statement with Harriett Baldwin, Parliamentary Candidate for Malvern Hills, the MP warns that only a change of Government can reduce the number of houses that Wychavon, Malvern Hills and Worcester City are being forced to provide for in the so-called South Worcestershire Joint Core Strategy.

They say,

“The new housing developments being planned under the South Worcestershire Joint Core Strategy (SWJCS) are the result of figures imposed on South Worcestershire’s local authorities by the Regional Spatial Strategy for the West Midlands – a strategy effectively dictated by Central Government.

“The three local authorities in the SWJCS – Wychavon, Malvern Hills and Worcester City - can do nothing but play pass the parcel within South Worcestershire with these figures; they cannot refuse to accommodate the housing numbers specified in the Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS).

The statement explains.

“The only way to prevent house-building on the envisaged scale is to abolish the Regional Spatial Strategy. This Government will not do that – indeed they are trying to impose even higher numbers on South Worcestershire.

“A new Conservative Government however, would make abandoning the RSS a top priority. Indeed, the Conservatives have already drafted legislation to scrap these plans – legislation that will be enacted swiftly as soon as they take office.

“We conclude that the only way of preventing an excessive number of new homes being imposed by the Government on South Worcestershire is by voting Conservative at the next General Election – and by having that election at the earliest possible date.”

Peter commented,

“If I oppose any one current proposal, then somewhere else in my constituency will get more houses instead. I am not prepared to go along with this corrupt system, imposed on us by the Government.

“I do not like being overtly party political at local level, but on this occasion I simply have to be. I share the views of the many local communities in my constituency that say they are being asked to take too many houses – and I share the fears that the infrastructure just won’t be there to meet the massive new demands that will be placed on it.

“But the Government is hell-bent on forcing these houses on us. A local, bottom-up approach will still mean we have to build houses, but in more appropriate locations, on a smaller scale, with better planning for the infrastructure to support them.

“Only a Conservative government will change the system. It’s that simple.”



PETER AND HARRIETT'S STATEMENT IN FULL

The new housing developments being planned under the South Worcestershire Joint Core Strategy (SWJCS) are the result of figures imposed on South Worcestershire’s local authorities by the Regional Spatial Strategy for the West Midlands – a strategy effectively dictated by Central Government.

The three local authorities in the SWJCS – Wychavon, Malvern Hills and Worcester City - can do nothing but play pass the parcel within South Worcestershire with these figures.; they cannot refuse to accommodate the housing numbers specified in the Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS).

The only way to prevent house building on the scale being imposed is for the Government to abolish the RSS – something they are not prepared to do. In fact, the Government is trying to increase the RSS housing numbers and make South Worcestershire’s problem even worse.

We conclude that the only way of preventing an excessive number of new homes being imposed by the Government on South Worcestershire is by voting Conservative at the next General Election – and by having that election at the earliest possible date.

THE SITUATION

Across England, the Government Offices for the Regions are conducting consultations on the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS). These are binding, top-down regional plans on local authorities indirectly imposed by the Government.

Worcestershire has not escaped from this process. The West Midlands RSS currently requires that over 365,000 extra dwellings should be provided in the region by 2026, of which more than 24,500 are required to be built in South Worcestershire – roughly equivalent to building a brand new city the size of Worcester.

South Worcestershire’s local authorities - Wychavon, Malvern Hills and Worcester City Council - have no say in this. They are legally bound by the Government to accept the numbers of houses decided by the unelected West Midlands Regional Assembly, and find some way of allocating them around South Worcestershire.

The three local authorities are only allowed to choose the most suitable places to put these new houses, and they are working together to do so and are preparing the South Worcestershire Joint Core Strategy (SWJCS) which will allocate the imposed new housing around the county.

The SWJCS as it stands proposes 9,100 of the RSS-imposed quota for the Wychavon area, principally around the main urban areas of Droitwich Spa, Evesham and Pershore with the rest pepper-potted around established villages in the area.

The SWJCS proposes 4,900 new homes to be built in the Malvern Hills area, principally around Malvern itself, with additional pepper-potting in the surrounding area.

The SWJCS proposes that the remaining 10,500 homes required by the RSS be built around Worcester City. As Worcester has little available land, the majority of these houses must also be built in Wychavon and Malvern Hills, in addition to their own substantial allocations. Hence the proposals for two new large settlements of around 3,500 homes - each the size of Pershore - in the West and the South of the city, with the additional numbers made up at various other locations.

These figures are already eye-wateringly high. But there is a very real possibility they could be raised higher still. Under new proposed figures published by the West Midlands Regional Assembly in April this year, total new house-building in the West Midlands could be 411,000 – with Wychavon taking on 11,900 new homes and Malvern Hills taking 6,900.

THE PROBLEMS

1. The Government’s proposed numbers are too high

We recognise the need for more housing. That is not in dispute. People are living longer; the divorce rate is a sad driver of increased household formation rates, while more people chose not to marry; and there is a lack of affordable housing, both rented and owned.

However, that does not mean we should take the Government’s approach to throw houses up without properly considering their long-term impact and, indeed, without establishing whether the current housing shortage is irreversible and permanent.

The Government are relying on new household projections which dramatically increase estimates of housing need over the next 20 years. They are even seeking to increase the current RSS figure to 411,000 extra dwellings for the West Midlands. The figure driving the current SWJCS is “only” 365,000. This smaller (but still far too high) figure means building rates 25% higher than recent evidence suggest is needed, but even so it looks set to be increased even further by the Government.

The Government is also assuming the current rate of immigration will continue. We think that it will not, as we are already seeing net migration back to the countries of Eastern Europe. The Government are projecting forward historically unprecedented levels of immigration, and that is a serious error.

Because it also anticipates migration from within the region, the RSS allocates too many houses to South Worcestershire and not enough to Birmingham and the Black Country, taking pressure off development of brownfield land there by allowing building on our greenfield land instead.

The Government also argue that house building levels need to be high to reduce the price of housing so that it is more affordable. They want to reduce house prices. But house prices are falling now on their own – without massive construction of new houses. Existing residents will certainly not welcome further reductions in the value of their family’s main asset, their home, forced on them by the Government.

2. Threat to Worcestershire’s rural landscape

If all the houses required by the RSS are built in South Worcestershire, hundreds of acres of the county’s treasured rural landscape, so vital for our wildlife, local environment and tourism, will be lost.

Worcester is identified as one of the growth points; the RSS preferred options document proposes that no fewer than 24,500 extra dwellings should be provided in South Worcestershire - in the City of Worcester, the Malvern Hills and Wychavon - over the next 20 years. To make matters worse, the Government want to increase that number substantially. The problem is that Worcester city is virtually full; it is estimated that it can accommodate about 3,200 houses, so the other 21,300 will inevitably spill out into the two surrounding districts.

This is causing understandable consternation in the affected communities – consternation we fully share. We see no way of accommodating that phenomenal level of growth without major damage being caused to the environment and the character of the area. We are concerned about the loss of agricultural land and areas of high landscape quality, increased pressure on an already overloaded transport system and the overdevelopment of villages within commuting distance of Worcester and towns such as Great Malvern, Evesham and Pershore.

Furthermore, ten percent of Worcestershire is at risk of flooding and any additional building, even outside the flood plain, which must at all costs be avoided, will increase flood risk in the rest of the county.

3. Building houses before planning Infrastructure is wrong headed

New homes and towns cannot exist in a vacuum. People living in them commute to work, travel to leisure facilities and hospitals and visit families and friends. The Government do not seem to understand that. The infrastructure of South Worcestershire is already under huge pressure; growth on the scale that is proposed under the existing RSS requires serious forethought by policy makers, as well as money – the necessary infrastructure must come before the houses, not after.

The Government has taken a wrong-headed approach to the situation. For example, they have closed down 2,500 post offices, without knowing which ones might have been needed to serve the people who will live in the new houses. It is the wrong time to cut the infrastructure that may be needed to support new houses.

Rail links to the north of the county and to Birmingham are at or beyond capacity. Commuters already face hugely unsatisfactory services; any further house building will strain them to breaking point, which will mean that people take to the roads to commute to their jobs and clog up an already overloaded network. More people on the roads means more cars in traffic jams and more carbon dioxide emissions: that is the environmental reality of the Government's plans.

A new Worcestershire Parkway station is one essential component of the transport infrastructure needed to deal with these challenges – but the Government and its agencies remain uncommitted to this vital project.

Additional forethought must be given to the locations of schools and health provision centres, such as hospitals and GP surgeries. Worcestershire Royal Hospital is already operating well beyond the levels it was designed for – it just cannot cope with a significant increase in the local population, and as it fails to do so, it is people who already live locally who will pay the price, not just the newcomers.

Infrastructure will not happen by magic, as a consequence of planning; rather, it must be put in communities in advance to ensure that the interests of the existing residents are also served. Local communities would have much more faith in what the Government are doing if there were funding mechanisms that worked for infrastructure in all its forms, including hospitals, water and sewerage, leisure facilities, energy supplies and, above all, transport.

4. The RSS is shamefully undemocratic

People are far more likely to receive the services they want if the decisions controlling those services are taken at the local level, within easy reach of the individuals who are affected. Sprawling tiers of regional bureaucracy, distant and remote from local communities, have undermined true local government and accountability.

Regional Spatial Strategies give the coalition of Whitehall mandarins and regional bureaucrats the power to impose individual house-building targets on every local authority, which must then be included in councils’ local development plans. Planning decisions should be decided by locally elected people, as the direct effect of the projects is on their residents.

5. Timing could prove problematic

It cannot be said too often that the figures for new house building in South Worcestershire are being imposed by the Regional Spatial Strategy. South Worcestershire’s local authorities have no choice but to play pass the parcel with the figures. If one community succeeds in arguing against a specific location, then another South Worcestershire community in Malvern Hills or Wychavon will see the houses allocated to their area instead. That is the dilemma facing the three district councils and all local politicians.

The only way to prevent house-building on the envisaged scale is to abolish the Regional Spatial Strategy. This Government will not do that – indeed they are trying to impose even higher numbers on South Worcestershire.
A new Conservative Government however, would make abandoning the RSS a top priority. Indeed, the Conservatives have already drafted legislation to scrap these plans – legislation that will be enacted swiftly as soon as they take office.

However, there is the crucial question of timing. The current local plans run out in 2011; if their replacements are not in place before then, developers will be free to run riot, unconstrained by any local plan; but if the SWJCS is in place before the election, it will be difficult to take back permission for house building that have already been agreed under this Government’s housing numbers. We welcome the efforts being made by our three district council leaders to review the programme for the SWJCS so as to have the most up to date evidence base and avoid this unwelcome trap. An early general Election would help greatly.

THE SOLUTION

There is only one solution to this mess – a Government that is willing to give power back to local people and their locally elected representatives, and allow them to have a say on their lives and their communities. Unfortunately, the Labour Government is too wedded to top-down control to ever achieve this.

The Conservative party have pledged to abolish the undemocratic and unwieldy tier of regional planning that persists across England. This will include changing the law to scrap Regional Spatial Strategies and Regional Planning Bodies. We will return their powers to elected local councils.

The role of central government inspectors in relation to these local plans will be drastically reduced. Instead of having the power to ride roughshod over local sentiment by effectively re-writing these plans (as at present), the inspectorate will only be asked to report to the Secretary of State on any direct breaches of national planning guidance, to ensure that the plan has been produced within the statutory framework. All other issues will be left for local determination.

As a logical consequence of scrapping the regional plan, if the RSSs have already been implemented, we will allow councils to revise their local plans (‘Local Development Frameworks’) to undo the changes that the RSS forced on them. This will allow local communities to protect their environment, and decide themselves the most appropriate level of development for the area.

Our system will therefore be built upwards on the wishes of local residents, with clear democratic accountability and decisions being made from the bottom up. People will have greater control over the size, shape and ‘look and feel’ of their community, so they will be more supportive of new developments.

So there is an alternative – but we need a change of Government to get it. Only the Conservatives are prepared to remove the distant and remote tier of ineffective regional government which has been given increasing control over people’s lives by the current Government. Only the Conservatives are prepared to give that power back to the people of Worcestershire and their local representatives.

ENDS


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