The present government has used its powers and its passion for regional planning to demand that districts like Wokingham accommodate large numbers of extra houses in the years ahead. They have done so at a time of unprecedented collapse in the housing market, with record lows for the numbers of new homes being started and completed. They have done so despite the strong feelings in many pleasant parts of the country that there should be some limit on the amount of green space swallowed up, and a further limit on how densely settlements can be packed with homes.
I and my Parliamentary colleagues have argued consistently for two big changes. The first is, we want to see more power granted to local Councils to make local judgements about how many homes should be built in each place. Conservatives have promised to grant more independence to Councils, should we win the Election. We want to cut back on the large amount of unelected regional government which dictates or overrides local democratic feeling on these matters.
The second is we have argued that government targets and requirements have imposed too high a density of new development in inappropriate places, have required too much backland and back garden development where local communities wish to preserve the existing character of the place, and have forced too much green field development. This is eroding gaps between settlements and other areas, and is forcing building on floodplains, when we already have flooding problems.
The result of the present government’s enthusiasm for high targets for new homes and their wish to see many of them imposed on the crowded south-east is the Wokingham Core Strategy. There remain many uncertainties for the planners. Will Arborfield Garrison close on schedule? Will this present government promise anything by way of guaranteed capital money to build the roads, schools and other facilities that large scale development would clearly need? What would it all look like if there were a change of government shortly, and a new administration removed regional dictates and left our community freer to make its own decisions?
The government should think again about its regional strategy in the light of very different circumstances over the provision of mortgage finance and the demand for new homes than in the boom years when the government first conceived the high targets. There is much less real pressure to build today, because mortgage finance is less available and because many people are struggling with their personal budgets. The present government is unlikely to come up with the large sums of new capital needed to make the investment to support large scale South-east development. Any successor government will inherit very strained finances, and will find it equally difficult to produce large extra sums for public spending.