Month: July 2022
My column in today’s Midweek Herald:
It is now official – East Devon is one of the top eight districts in the country for rising population (up 13 per cent up in a decade). The further you go from Exeter, the more the new arrivals are retirees. In town after town and village after village, housing estates catering partly for middle-aged incomers are changing the landscape. In Seaton this month, a developer has showcased a new scheme to build 130 dwellings, many of them bungalows, on the town’s outskirts.
Urban growth is not necessarily a bad thing. Towns change and growing populations need housing. The shortage of housing for local people is one of our biggest scandals, made worse by the Conservatives’ low priority for social housing, the poor quality of some private rented accommodation, landlords switching to holiday lets, and the house price boom – artificially stimulated by the government – which prices younger people out of the market to buy while simultaneously pushing up rents.
More housing, but not any old housing – or any old place
So we need more housing, but not any old housing as the government believes. A town like Seaton with one of the most elderly populations in the country – 45 per cent are over 65 – needs more retirement bungalows like a hole in the head. We’ve already had one revolt over this issue, when developers wanted to divert a site earmarked for a hotel to build more retirement flats. The community stood firm and in due course the hotel was built. The developers making the current proposal, Baker Estates, say that bungalows will facilitate downsizing freeing up family homes ‘elsewhere’. It’s little consolation for Seaton to know that houses will be available in the Midlands or the Home Counties!
The housing we need also can’t be in any old place. Planning policies exist for a reason – if they didn’t, the whole of the Devon coast would have wall-to-wall development, ruining the very beauty which draws people to the area. ‘Green wedges’ between towns and villages is another key policy, maintaining a rural edge for urban areas as well as the identities of distinct communities. People in Seaton and Colyford have shown over the last decade that they value the Green Wedge between the two, and have twice fought off attempts to build it over. The proposed development will further surround the precious Seaton Wetlands with housing, and threatens the bat and bird life which are so important to them.
Baker Estates promise up to 25 per cent ‘affordable homes’, although even with shared ownership, properties at around £300,000 are hardly affordable for many, and these dwellings (if built) will doubtless end up in the least desirable corner of the estate, with the smallest gardens. I say ‘if built’ because Seatonians are familiar with the ‘vanishing affordable homes’ trick, since what is now the Pebble Beach estate was supposed to have 40 per cent of them, then 25 per cent, and ended up with precisely none.
Mandatory targets for houses, but not services
East Devon’s planning policies are robust but the council is under the constant pressure of the government’s housing targets and its penalties for not meeting them. It’s noticeable that the government doesn’t enforce targets for social health provision with the same rigour, so if we accept scores more bungalows our extremely stretched health and social care services won’t automatically expand to match.
We cannot keep building over our countryside and allowing our communities to become more and more unbalanced in age terms. We don’t need a nationally imposed target for new dwellings, to be supplied in whichever form the developers find most profitable. We need more good quality social housing, fewer second homes (we should restrict those to the areas where there isn’t acute housing pressure), and a better balance between holiday lets (desirable for tourism) and private rentals (which are essential housing). Not everyone will like this, but we also need house prices to fall, to let young people back into the housing market.
On Wednesday, I attended Baker Estates’ exhibition about their proposed scheme for a housing development in the Seaton-Colyton Green Wedge. Following the exhibition, a Facebook group OPPOSE Baker Estates Building on the green wedge between Seaton & Colyford has been set up and already has over 250 members.
Baker Estates has acquired an interest in the land shown on their map and proposes to build up to 130 homes, a large proportion of them bungalows with a possible 25 per cent ‘affordable housing’. The majority of the houses are proposed to be built outside the Seaton Built Up Area Boundary and inside the protected Green Wedge, as defined by the current East Devon Local Plan (go to the interactive map to compare the plan to the Baker Estates proposals).
Baker Estates were giving out a questionnaire for a ‘consultation’, which is also available on their site. As a social scientist who knows something about questionnaire design, I can confirm that it is so poorly designed and and misleading as to be worthless as an expression of public opinion (but which Baker Estates will doubtless seek to use if they get ‘results’ helpful to their cause):
- The first question asks about the proposal to build bungalows, ‘addressing an unmet need and providing downsizing opportunities that free up family home elsewhere’. Giving the alleged benefits of this in the question, but with no mention of the downsides (e.g. a massive increase in Seaton’s already huge pensioner population with all the knock-on effects for local services) makes this a leading question.
- The second asks about whether there should be a through link for pedestrians/cyclists/buses only between Harepath Road and Colyford Road, or a road connection, but then says ‘do you agree, yes or no?’, rather than providing boxes for the two alternatives. So this question is so poorly designed as to be meaningless.
- The third asks if people support the provision of a new sports pitch ‘to enhance local facilities’. This is like asking people if they like sunny weather, but there is no indication that the scheme will not actually construct this pitch and its associated facilities.
- The fourth asks if people support the provision of 25% ‘affordable homes’. No mention of the fact that a scheme that overrides the local plan would normally be expected to have a much higher proportion (as much as 66%). Why no alternative percentages – 50, 66, 75 – for people to tick?
- The fifth question asks if housing similar in style to their other Seaton developments would be suitable.
- The sixth is the most outrageously leading question: ‘Given that the emerging local plan identifies a need for more homes at Seaton and a need for sports facilities, do you support the proposals? (1) The ’emerging’ plan is not in force yet and will not be when Baker Estates submit their application later this year; it is the existing Local Plan which matters. (2) Both the existing and emerging plans include a policy on Green Wedges, as well as other policies which this proposal will violate. (3) Just because extra homes are needed does not mean that this is the right place to build them – there are other options, as people are pointing out on Facebook.
I will be writing about the wider context of this in a forthcoming column in the Midweek Herald. Sign up for updates to this blog to get notified of this and other comments on these issues.