Lesley Mansell has been selected as Labour’s candidate for the new West of England metro mayor. We all wish her well in the upcoming election and offer her whatever support needed. One of the biggest issues within the remit of the metro mayor will be housing. Housing is a particularly pressing concern in the West of England, a rapidly growing part of the country. In South Gloucestershire and especially Thornbury and Yate, with its predominance of rural and semi-rural towns and villages, housing raises particular issues: balancing maintaining the character of our communities and the needs of all members (and prospective members) of those communities.
The presence of the green belt has been a mixed blessing, preventing development sprawl subsuming much of rural South Gloucestershire into the Greater Bristol conurbation, but leading to unbalanced and non-optimal development at the edge of the green belt, effecting the larger towns in Thornbury and Yate.
This September article from the BBC about a village in Suffolk that shows one way that consensus around housing development can be achieved, even in an area where Nimbyism would most be expected.
“It is an issue which has led to some soul-searching by many of the older residents of Lavenham as they consider the future of their historic village.
“I’m not going to knock the over-65s too hard – I’m one of them,” says Carroll Reeve, chairman of the parish council.
“But we’ve got to make spaces for the young families coming through the school. We’ve got to plan for the future. And unless we start to address that issue we could end up as a retirement home.”
Pat Rockall, chair of governors at Lavenham Primary School, agrees and suggests young families are the lifeblood of the village.
“There has to be young life in any village. We have got to think about what this village will be like in 50 to 100 years, and we must do something now, to make sure it is a living, working, breathing community then.””
Key aspects highlighted in the article that have lead to greater acceptance are price controls and coupling with expansion of services and amenities. Other ways to increase acceptability could be greater community involvement from the outset in choosing location and style of development: letting communities know what proportion of new housing is required but giving them an active role in deciding where they should go and what they should look like. This is where a more muscular role for local authorities in directing and implementing housing development that centres the needs of communities and not developers, could come into play, and where Labour, with its commitment to government, at both national and local level, as a force for positive social change, has the chance to come to the fore. Involving communities actively in the planning process, and including new amenities could make viable a more balanced spread of the burden of new housing across South Gloucestershire, including consciously taking a flexible approach to the greenbelt for community focused developments. New housing has the potential to make sustainable threatened services such as smaller schools and lead to more balanced communities. “Garden” towns or villages, if done well also have the potential to achieve some of these goals.
It’s also vital that a housing policy encompass all types of tenure, politicians of all parties have often elevated home ownership and home owners to the pinnacle of political discourse, and the key to their electoral prospects. Social housing has come to be undervalued at the expense of some of the poorest in society. Long-term social housing needs to be included in any new development but it’s also important not to view renters and owners as categorically separate groups. Often they are the same people at different stages in their lives. Not everyone aspires to home-ownership, and the responsibilities and restrictions that go with it in the immediate future. Home ownership can be isolating for single people and the accommodation of single people in family homes isn’t an efficient use of space, leading to further pressure on housing. The availability of inexpensive rented accommodation would allow young people to retain more of there income to save including towards their eventual family home. Housing is intimately connected to how people lives and the problems facing newly single older women, in particular, was highlighted by one of the candidates for Labour metro-mayoral candidate, Bath and North East Somerset Labour Group Leader, Robin Moss, at a hustings. The new Metro Mayor has the opportunity to look into developments for private sector renters- located in the main population centres aligned with public transport routes- and thinking about how those communities could be designed: in which ways people want privacy and in which ways people want communal space. Renting out small properties to private renters, at a modest profit but still below market rates could generate new income for local authorities and also be an efficient use of space.
Housing is a hot button issue that cuts across social and political divides with excessive housing costs dragging down disposable incomes for large numbers of people and many more in the region are effected by new housing development. Innovative housing policies have the potential to resonate in ways that could prove a political success beyond Labour’s natural constituencies.