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.