The explosion in housing developments around our cities, small towns and villages across Cymru / Wales over the last 30 years - often with little provision for public transport or alternative ways for potential residents to get around beyond using their cars - has also flagged up the rapid loss of green spaces in and around our urban areas. One thing our country lacks, aside from a serious well though out integrated housing structure plan, and any realistic vision or plan for developing our housing, is a lack of green belt.
We have a clear, if not a dire need for the creation of Green belt across all of our country, to fringe our urban areas, to help focus out of town and fringe of town developments, and to protect green spaces between and within some of our urban areas. Green belt, if respected is a useful planning tool, originally introduced for London in 1938, it was rolled out to England as a whole by a government circular in 1955 but interestingly enough it was only enough never rolled out here in Cymru / Wales.
Now the original concept was to allow local councils to designate green belts when they wanted to restrict or control urban growth. The idea worked and it worked well, as by 2007, Green belt covered something like 13% of England (about one-and-a-half million hectares) despite the best efforts of previous Conservative, New Labour and Conservative–Liberal Democrat Governments it is still remains relatively well protected by normal planning controls against "inappropriate development".
We have one patch of notional green belt (actually a Green wedge) that lies between Cardiff and Newport. Scotland has seven and Northern Ireland has 30 - each has its own policy guidance. The absence of green belt has contributed to urban sprawl and significant out of town and edge of town development - something that has done little to help our communities, economically or socially especially over the last 30 years.
The preservation of green spaces aside, comes down to planning permission, it can be a touchy subject, especially when a development (whether for commercial, housing or energy development) is controversial or the final decision is made against the wishes of local people. We face the same problem across all of our country, be it around Wrecsam, Carmarthen, Cardiff, Swansea of any of our smaller towns and villages.
A number of these housing developments, which have done (and will do) some pretty serious damage to our environment in the process without any necessary improvements in infrastructure e.g new railway stations with reasonably priced (or even free), adequate and secure park and ride facilities at Caerleon (closed as a result of the Beeching cuts in 1962, in the UDP since 1984) not to mention Llanwern and Magor.
In the south east, along the coastal belt and in and around Newport and Torfaen (not to mention around Cardiff and Caerphilly) and across Monmouthshire the last thirty years has seen a significant if not spectacular growth in the amount of housing, a significant percentage of which has never aimed to fulfil local housing needs. As a result the infrastructure along the coastal belt between Chepstow, Caldicot, Rogiet and Magor struggles to cope with existing developments and this is well before the projected expansion of housing on and around the former Llanwern site (where the proposed railway station was recently cancelled) really kicks in.
Northern Newport has been linked to the south Cwmbran - something that has brought little material benefit to the residents of either urban area but has contributed much to traffic congestion. Similarly linking Cwmbran with Sebastopol will bring scant benefit to local residents - when the housing development is complete - just exactly how much of it will be affordable to local residents?
The removal of the Severn Bridge tolls resulted (as expected) in a bump in house prices as people living in and around Bristol moved to cash in on cheaper housing over here. This understandably impacted on both affordable and available housing, developers will no doubt pitch their developments accordingly to cash in on perceived higher wages in the Bristol area and perceived cheaper housing over here (and no doubt our local authorities will fall over themselves to accommodate the developers wishes regardless how local people feel).
The National Assembly should have known better and acted accordingly, the institution when established was supposed to have sustainability enshrined in its actions, but, at times you really have to wonder, especially when it comes to the impact of some of the proposed developments on our communities, whether it does. We need to develop and protect our own green wedges around and within our urban communities – because once developed its are gone for good. It should be pretty clear by now to even the most dispassionate of observers that in Wales, we lack a coherent national strategic development plan for Wales judging by the half-baked way local unitary development plans have been put together over the years.
The problem caused by a lack of protection to our Green wedges, etc is aggravated by the fact that what one generation of elected officials (and council officers) envisages as a green wedge, green lane, etc is often seen by later generations of elected officials (and council officers) as either prime land for development or a nice little earner to help balance out the books - this means that there is a real lack of stability and a long term vision for many of our urban areas and impacts on our quality of life.
The National Assembly needs to act like the Welsh Parliament it has become - it should be and take the long view and create Welsh Green belt land with full legal and planning protections. This might go some way to calming things down when it comes to development planning and might introduce a more long-term sustainable democratic element into the process. This is something that could be accomplished by creating Welsh Green belt land, as part of the process we also need an urgent and open debate into the planning process in Wales - something that has been long overdue.
Successive Westminster government’s (in England) talked about getting planning officers "off people's backs" with a relaxation of current rules. When they talked about ‘people’ they meant developers. In true Spiv fashion ‘for a limited period, people were able to build larger extensions on houses (up to eight metres for detached homes and six for others). Shops and offices were also able grow to the edges of their premises as Plan A (harsh Public Sector Cuts) continues to unravel and on the back of BREXIT a note of desperation may creep into Westminster’s attempts to stabilise the economy.
Much of this sounds good; it seems reasonable save for the fact that somewhere amongst the smoke and mirrors the plan has always been reduce developer’s obligations to build proportional amounts of affordable housing and avoiding flood risk will go out the window. The Lib Dems as ubber willing coalition partners with David Camerons Conservatives happily signed up to this. Not that long ago the previous Westminster government rewrote the entire planning framework (for England) despite some fierce resistance from countryside campaigners. No doubt post Brexit Westminster ministers will want further changes to planning rules (in England) in an attempt to boost house building and revive the economy.
Not wanting to be left out (and also perhaps bereft of any fresh ideas), a few years ago Carwyn’s Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff also pursued major changes to planning rules in Wales aiming to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’. That decision was in my opinion aimed quite specifically at overturning those few occasions when our Local Authorities have rejected developments (often at the behest of local residents) rather than putting economic needs ahead of economic and environmental benefits and will do little for sustainable, flood free development to deal with local housing needs let alone preserve our green spaces. It explains much of the housing overdevelopment in various parts of our country and it does not deliver for our hard pressed communities or our country.
We need to look at championing the development of new homes in small-scale housing developments in both rural and urban Wales on ‘exception sites’, where land plots, not covered by general planning permission, will be capped at an affordable price designed to benefit those in local housing need with family and work ties to the area, and whose sale will be conditional on these houses continuing in local ownership in perpetuity. What’s left of our social housing stock that remains under the control of the housing associations needs to remain intact in order to meet the demand for homes. Along with developing social housing stock there is a need to introduce a more rigorous system in the allocation of social housing to give priority to those in local housing need.
Part of the problem is that our planning system, along with our almost nineteenth century local government setup is not designed to coexist with devolution or for that matter to deliver planning decisions with real and lasting benefits for local people and local communities. There is a real need for root and branch reform and reorganisation of our planning system; the Welsh Government’s simply decided to tinker and tweak with existing out-dated legislation rather than reform it.
Our current planning system remains far too focused on railroading through large housing developments that bring little benefits for local people and local communities and often fail to resolve real and pressing local housing needs. We need a fundamental change in planning culture to encourage appropriate and sustainable smaller scale housing developments, which are based on good design and actively promote energy efficiency and good environmental standards and that puts our communities first. This is something we are never going to get from a Labour in Wales government, it’s time to change Cymru / Wales, with a Plaid Cymru government in 2021, for unlike Labour, Plaid believes that Wales can.