The long suffering commuters who have been taxed for going to work, and many businesses who have been taxed for simply doing business are understandably looking forward to the pre-Christmas demise of the Severn Bridge tolls, just like the rest of us. The demise of the tolls is to be welcomed, it is in truth well overdue, but there will be some not necessarily unforeseen medium to longer term consequences for all of us. Locally it may well be the estate agents and house builders who really end up cashing in and ordinary people losing out when it comes to affordable housing.
We have all seen the consequences and the impact of purchasing power, between areas of relative affluence and areas that are less affluent in various parts of Wales, particularly if those areas happen to be desirable places to retire too or move to, this problem is not confined to Wales, if affects places as diverse and distant as Cumbria, Cornwall, Friesland (in Holland and Denmark. Once the tolls go house prices will continue to rise and the pressure to build new houses to deal with the demand for cheaper housing from across the bridge. Simply building houses in south Monmouthshire, Newport and Torfaen in an effort to cash in on the projected housing shortage in the Bristol area is not acceptable - we need a longer term strategic plan.
|A boom is usually followed by an accompanying crash...|
The current strategy fundamentally fails to solve the problems of local housing shortage and demonstrates the need for a genuinely balanced new all Wales housing plan. Locally one consequence of the demise of the tolls will be a speeding up the on-going process by which local residents continue to be priced out of the market and their own communties. We have already seen this happen along the coastal belt of Gwent between eastern Newport and Chepstow and around Abergavenny. This has happened partially because some actual and proposed houses have been priced to maximise profits and new housing has been effectively marketed and sold in Bristol ('Get your free bridge tag for 18 months, etc').
Wales needs to have substantially more affordable housing otherwise an entire generation will miss out on the reasonable expectation of having a decent affordable home. The supply of more affordable housing should be met through a combination of bringing empty properties back into use, and new developments of mixed housing in the social and private sectors, but only, when local needs and environmental sustainability have been taken into account.
Our country would be well served by the establishment of a National Housing Company, which could borrow against rents to build a new generation of public rental housing in Wales limited in number only by demand. Whatever Government holds power in Cardiff Bay should support Local Authorities that wish to build new Council Housing. We need to revisit and repurpose the housing associations that have proliferated across Wales since housing was transferred from local authority control to the housing associations.
Local Authorities should be expected to agree targets for supplying affordable housing, including new social housing, with the Welsh Government, but should be given the flexibility to decide how they would achieve this based upon the needs of their area. Local Authorities will be able to develop joint long term plans with neighbouring local authorities, or work through housing associations or the National Housing Company, if they believed this was the best way to meet the needs of their areas.
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.
This problem has been aggravated because during the last few decades (on Conservative, Labour and Conservative- Liberal Democrat government) local democracy has been consistently undermined, as developers (and here we are not just talking about housing) simply appear to carry on appealing until they get their way or get their development retrospectively approved at a higher level. Or the process of land acquisition literally begins long before the proposal even goes to inquiry almost as if the decision has already been made (this happens at both local, national and a Westminster level).
Local government officers will (and do) advise local councillors not to turn down developments (whatever the grounds) because the developers will simply appeal until the cows come home and that local government just does not have the finances to cope with this situation. My own father (who served as a City councillor in Newport from 1999 until 2012) observed the development of this practice while sitting on Newport city council.
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.
Our planning system and planning processes are too slow, too bureaucratic and too unresponsive to real local needs and local opinions. The current system is based on the post-war Town and Country Planning Act from 1947 and is simply out-dated; our country needs a modern planning system that meets the needs of modern Welsh society. In line with the realities of devolution our country needs an independent Planning inspectorate for Wales as the old single planning inspectorate for England and Wales is increasingly unsustainable.
What we badly need is a sensible properly planned housing strategy, not just for south Monmouthshire, the rest of the former county of Gwent and Cardiff, but also for the rest of our country. When it comes to large-scale housing developments, based on previous observations, we can pretty much predict what happens next - in terms of crumbling infrastructure, more congestion, more pollution and a poor quality of life in our own communties.