Ben Paton writes to Guildford Dragon

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Letter: Building On The Green Belt Requires ‘Exceptional Circumstances’

Affordable-Housing 2From Ben Paton

Ben Paton

Gordon Bridger’s contribution to this debate expresses worthy sentiments but is short on real analysis.

It is terribly easy to make a populist argument. It runs: everyone should be able to afford something (a house, a car, a diamond engagement ring); the government should intervene to make the thing, whatever it is, cheaper. Politicians say, in effect, elect me and I will deliver you a cheaper house.

Applying this to housing runs into some fundamental problems because the affordability of a house depends on where it is. Houses near London cost a great deal. Houses in other parts of the country are much cheaper .

Secondly, even if thousands of ‘affordable’ homes were built it is unlikely to do anything to change the average price level, or even the specific prices, of affordable homes in Guildford – because Guildford is not an island and depends on London.

Gordon Bridger omits some critical elements from his simple model. For example he does not mention that immigration is a key cause of population growth. The website shows for example that over 10% of the population of this borough was born outside the UK, that 8.7% of the population of the borough has arrived since 2000, that over 7% has arrived since 2004 and some 11.73% hold non UK passports.

These are ONS numbers. Nor does he mention that 70% of the new homes built in London are acquired by overseas buyers. Nor does he mention that GBC has not built any council houses for 20 years. Nor does he mention that local infrastructure like schools and roads have limited capacity for new houses.

Who will pay for the new infrastructure? Probably the existing residents – whose quality of life will be adversely affected the increased congestion and pollution.

Simplistic models do not reflect reality and when politicians indulge in economic experiments – like trying to get local government to fix the price of affordable homes – the real costs are usually borne by the taxpayer.

The green belt is the whipping boy for politicians like Mr Bridger. They want to rob the green belt to pay for their social experiments. They find it easy to make a populist and facile argument that just a little bit of green belt, or Stoke Park, or Hyde Park, would help solve the problem they have identified.

But they forget that once you corrupt a principle the whole edifice may start to collapse. The green belt was created in the public interest as a strategic asset for everyone. It does not mean that building is not allowed. It just means that new building should go elsewhere than in the green belt (except in ‘exceptional circumstances’).

There is not in fact a shortage of ‘elsewhere’. Locally it includes brownfield sites. Nationwide it includes large tracts of land – for example the swathe between Oxford and Cambridge that some people are advocating as sites for new towns.

Like many councillors for the town, Mr Bridger is a closet NIMBY. Some of them, I suspect, have similar views, hoping that a Wisley development will reduce the pressure for development in or near their wards.

These arguments amount to saying, ‘put it anywhere but here’ – and don’t let any facts get in the way of what I want; tiresome facts such as the fact that the proposed development at Ockham would be on Grade 3 farmland and compromise the integrity of a Special Protection Area for endangered species.

It is simplistic to say that there is a shortage of houses in the borough. In fact there’s a house for every 2.4 people – which by British standards is a bit more than average and by global standards is princely.

It is true that there is a shortage of social houses. And this is much more directly addressed by incentivising councils and Housing Associations to build. Even Mr Bridger believes that there has been over investment in retail space. Some of that could be converted to housing.

Gordon Bridger advocates building on the green belt. But he also omits to state that as the law currently stands that is illegal unless ‘exceptional circumstances’ are shown. Mr Bridger has never, to my knowledge, ever stated what the ‘exceptional circumstances’ upon which he would rely are.

Politicians who ignore the law are a liability to the public. They cost taxpayers’ money. This current council has spent, according to my reckoning, £3.1m on the Local Plan up to the end of 2014 – and will probably get through another £1m before it is done.

Like Mr Bridger, Mr Mansbridge has arrogantly assumed that whatever he can get his party to vote for will work – even if he is making it up as he goes along.

The question for Mr Bridger, is not whether x% of the green belt will suffice to run his experiment. A more relevant question is what are his ‘exceptional circumstances’? Are they legally watertight? Or are they just a whole lot of pretexts to justify the first simple model he thought of?

If Mr Bridger has no ‘exceptional circumstances’ then what he proposes is not legal. If it is not legal it will require a change in the law. When the law is reviewed the public will be reminded of why it was made in the first place. And then the public will see that Mr Bridger has led them on a merry diversion ultimately to discover what a proper analysis would have exposed in the first place.


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