Tuesday, October 16, 2018

UNFORESEEN CONSEQUENCES?


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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

SAYING GOODBYE TO TOLLS


The news that the Severn bridge tolls will be gone by Christmas could, if you were in the right frame of mind, perhaps be considered an early Christmas present. Personally I am like many people glad to see the back of the tolls - I have long considered the Severn bridge tools to be a tax - on commuters, on jobs and businesses. 

The concession holders regulations, as they were written, back in the 1990's - no doubt to encourage private enterprise to take over the building project and the tolls, pretty much allowed the lease holder(s) to ramp up the bridge in an annual basis raking in the profits much to the irritation of regular bridge users.  

The Second Severn Bridge - cheap at half the price!
The Westminster based (and focused) political parties took a while to wake up to the reality, and eventually made the usual noises, usually when in opposition, rather than when in power at Westminster. As the toll is about to end, it may wonder or consider whether it was ever worth contracting out the construction of the second crossing (and the tolls) to a private concern in the first place.

Obviously the decision to ' privatise' the construction of the second Severn bridge and to privatise the consortium that ran the concession was one made for openly ideological (political) reasons. We have ended up with a bridge, that cost a lot - to build and an ever greater deal to cross - I suspect if we are being honest, that the answer in no. 

Taking the long view it would have been much more sensible for the state to build and run the bridge - rather than shirk its responsibilities. Had the project been commissioned under New Labour then it would have probably been commissioned via PFI - buy now, pay a hell of a lot later. By the time the two Severn Bridges come back into public ownership in 2018, it has been estimated that this cash cow may well have been milked to the tune of about £ 1.029 billion pounds. 

Severn Bridge tolls since 1976
Back in October 2010, Professor Peter Midmore's independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls recommended that the revenues from the tolls should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. The study of 122 businesses commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses revealed that the tolls had a negative impact on 30% of firms in South Wales, this compared with 18% in the Greater Bristol area.

The fact that successive Westminster governments have found it impossible to complete a public project on budget, to cost and on-time, should tell us something. This is not necessarily the case elsewhere, a prime example being the the Millau Viaduct (in France) which just happened to be on time, on budget and at cost - the failure to manage to achieve this here regularly in the UK - may tell us more about the incompetence, inefficiency and perhaps the less than transparent aspects of the Westminster based political parties relationship with the city and big business. 

The Millau Viaduct - on target, on time, on budget...
We will probably never find out how and why the relevant legislation and the concession regulations that allowed the tolls to rise so regularly were written (or by who). The end result was that the concession holders were allowed and whether whoever made that questionable decision received any reward - cash or kind. Had the second severn crossing and subsequent toll concession been run by the state, then there is the distinct possibility that the tolls would have remained far lower and wold probably have been reduced and canceled far earlier. We would also probably not have got so regularly and consistently fleeced by Severn Crossings PLC . 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

YES WALES CAN