Philip Barnes – Blog

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“YOU’RE concreting over the countryside” is a familiar refrain whenever a scheme for housing on urban edge farmland is put forward. An apocalyptic vision of unrelenting roads and tower blocks from Leeds to Edinburgh is conjured up. The reality is that Newcastle is luckily one of the few major European cities which has space to grow without raising major environmental concerns. That was the clear conclusion of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development when it looked at Newcastle’s economic future in 2010.

Nevertheless I thought it would be interesting to see how long it would actually take to concrete over just the Newcastle sector of the Green Belt at current rates of city development. The answer was 1,175 years – Year 3188 to be precise. No need to bin my walking boots just yet. Let me put it another way. If the Tyne and Wear Green Belt were a tennis court then the Callerton Park Scheme for 7000 houses would measure 30 inches by 30 inches.

Which begs the question why is it proving so difficult to achieve the new homes and jobs which the OECD recognised as so important. It’s certainly not the Government. We have pro-development national policies and, in my humble opinion, the best planning minister in decades.

It also isn’t a lack of need – there are currently 90,000 on housing waiting lists in the North East and in Northumberland alone the need for social rented housing alone stands at 655 per year. Despite this only 558 homes, in total, were delivered in the county last year. Neither it is a lack of demand. The population of the region is forecast to grow by 127,500 people by 2021 whilst 13 families currently leave Newcastle every week searching for better cheaper housing. Many would prefer to stay in the city if new homes were being built. Recent trading statements from all the major housebuilders confirm they want to invest and build homes.

The demand is there but often securing permission is difficult. In the meantime the region suffers from the oldest and worst housing stock in the country. The key reason why development is not happening is due to house values. Many NIMBYs fear that new development near them will reduce the value of their own house.

As a result they quite naturally object and often local politicians sometimes confuse a large number of private financial interests with the public interest. After all the NIMBY generation is usually aged 50-60 plus – precisely the type of people who vote in local elections – as opposed to the younger families in need of housing but often don’t vote due to work and family commitments.

So what needs to be done to get the new homes we need and want to be actually delivered in the region? Firstly developers need to work harder to educate communities of the benefits of new development and allay fears that new homes will necessarily reduce the value of the surrounding houses which local people have worked so hard to secure.
It is their primary asset and developers should recognise and address this concern.

The evidence is clearly available to show that new homes often increase market confidence and local house prices. This is unsurprising given that the level of new community gains such as sports facilities, new infrastructure, social housing and new parkland which accompanies new development. Some argue that the landowners and developers cream off huge profits from the uplift in land value. The reality of course is that local authorities, quite rightly, negotiate hard on the basis of the financial figures to ensure that much of the uplift is ploughed back into new community facilities.

Secondly the planning and regeneration agencies need to set out a pro-growth vision for the North East region. The Adonis Review and a new chief executive at Newcastle City Council offer huge hope in this regard.

Finally, and perhaps controversially, politicians must try harder to focus on the overriding need to build more homes. No one should underestimate just how unpopular housebuilding is but 25 years of weak planning decisions in the region has contributed hugely to the current housing crisis.

A crisis, which the planning minister recently described as the biggest threat to social justice in this country. Now is time for a change.