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Budget 2017: What’s the deal for the countryside?

The Chancellor's commitment to 'unlock' sites for urban regeneration could be good news for the countryside The Chancellor's commitment to 'unlock' sites for urban regeneration could be good news for the countryside

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, was under a lot of pressure this week to announce measures that might start to solve the housing crisis. While England needs many more homes the risk, as always, was that the countryside and rural communities would be further pummelled by ill-conceived policies based on a faulty growth model. In fact, the Budget speech was a mixed bag. This is our initial view on what it means for the countryside, and colleagues across CPRE at the national and local level will contribute to our activities in response to the Budget and subsequent policy announcements.

The good
The highlight of the speech had to be Mr Hammond’s commitment to “continuing the strong protection of our Green Belt”. After rumours that the release of Green Belt land was being considered in the Treasury, CPRE ran a campaign action inviting people to write to their MPs and demand the Chancellor rule this out. Letters reached all 533 English MPs and the Government listened. We’re considering that a great success for our grassroots campaigning – thank you to everyone who took part. (Obviously, we would have preferred the Government to commit to reversing the recent trend of releasing more and more Green Belt for development, despite the “strong protection” of which the Chancellor speaks.)

We support the Government in its aspirations to build the homes the nation needs while protecting the countryside, maintaining the Green Belt and leaving the environment in a better condition that it was in 2010.  So it was particularly welcome to hear the Chancellor talking about “making the best use of our urban land” to build “high quality, high density homes in city centres and around transport hubs”. Our research shows that over 1 million homes could be built on suitable brownfield sites across the country, and those sites should be prioritised ahead of greenfield development.

Additionally, there was welcome recognition that not all development needs to fit a large, one-size-fits-all model: the Budget allocates £630 million for a new small sites fund aimed at building 40,000 new homes. Last year, our report On Solid Ground showed how rural exception sites could be used to help plug the gap in rural affordable housing. If the new fund is directed to meet genuine social need in small communities then it would be a very timely use of public money.

Mr Hammond also announced a review, to be chaired by Sir Oliver Letwin MP, into the persistent gap between planning permissions granted and homes built. The problem of developers building out sites slowly while demanding greenfield land is released has preoccupied CPRE for some time, especially given that - as the Chancellor noted – in London alone there are 270,000 homes with planning permission that are yet to be built. The Letwin Review will make an interim report in time for the Spring Statement in March, and we will be following its progress with interest.

Finally, abolishing Stamp duty for properties worth less than £300,000 will make it a little easier for rural first-time buyers to stay in their communities and help maintain a vibrant social mix in our villages and market towns.

The bad
Despite all this, the Government still hasn’t let go of its defunct notions of affordability and growth. Mr Hammond proudly reiterated that 1.1 million homes had been built since 2010, of which 300,000 were affordable. This means that 800,000 of those homes were unaffordable, and that’s before factoring in that the official definition of affordability – 80% of market value – is still unaffordable to most people. It is simply no good building more homes if only a small proportion of the population can afford to live in them.

Another key problem is the lack of community involvement in major development. While good steps have been taken with the introduction of neighbourhood planning, these are undermined when, for example, the Chancellor reveals he has struck a deal with Oxfordshire County Council to build 100,000 new homes there by 2031, before any meaningful consultation or understanding of the impacts such growth would have on the county’s unique environment and heritage. The same applies to the proposed 1 million homes along the new Oxford-Cambridge corridor, linked to the National Infrastructure Commission’s recent report on the area. Urban and rural communities alike will continue to resist development where they see it imposed from above their heads by Whitehall.

And, somewhat predictably, there was a clash between the Chancellor’s rhetoric around regional rebalancing and his proposals to continue overheating London and the south-east with development and infrastructure investment that will just further stoke demand. Five new garden towns were promised “in areas of demand pressure”, and borrowing caps will be lifted on councils “in high demand areas” to facilitate more building. We support an increase in the council houses that have historically helped meet rural needs, but if the Government was serious about rebalancing the economy it would prioritise investment in Sunderland rather than Sevenoaks.

What now?
Balancing out the good and the bad, there are welcome signs that the Government is starting to grasp the real reasons why the houses we need aren’t being built.

In particular, the launch of the Letwin Review shows a new recognition that simply weakening the planning system and bribing developers with public money will not solve the housing crisis. We would like to see Sir Oliver also consider the delay in planning applications being submitted on sites identified for development by communities in local and neighbourhood plans and brownfield registers. Mr Hammond did not address this point; instead, there is a proposal hidden in the detail of the Budget documents (p.60, para 5.7) suggesting that councils should delete sites from plans “if there is no prospect of a planning application being made”. This is potentially a carte blanche for developers to cherry-pick the cheapest, least sustainable and least popular sites for development.

The Chancellor said that the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, will “set out more detail in due course” on measures included in the Budget. We’re waiting avidly to hear what he has to say.


It was particularly welcome to hear the Chancellor talking about 'making the best use of our urban land'

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