Shadow minister Tim Boswell shares his thoughts on how to go about building more houses (and roads, schools, clinics) in his parliamentary constituency …
When I first heard of the government’s plans for an expansion of housing supply in my constituency of Daventry, I was naturally anxious to explore the implications. As it became clearer that no full blueprint existed, I became determined to press for a proper say for local residents.
When it became clear that the government wanted us to have the first full-blown urban development corporation outside London, I adopted a pragmatic position. Although it is still early days, and the West Northants UDC has still to complete its plan, I have not seen the need to alter my stance.
Although local people getting their say matters to political acceptability, the main issue is infrastructure. Given the history of rapid growth in Northamptonshire and the south Midlands, often with housing in the lead and infrastructure lagging, local people are demanding a more balanced outcome this time, with any planning gains being ploughed back into local community support.
Whether funded by the public purse or the developer, the full wishlist may be too long. The challenge for policymakers is to secure community objectives without creating a significant backlash from local groups or from the businesses we must attract. To this end, I am relieved the government is having second thoughts about the planning gain supplement, which has failed under different names so many times. Any alternative, such as the roof tax in Milton Keynes, needs to be clear and proportionate, rather than operating as an imposition on commerce.
Arguably, the original programme for sustainable communities was itself not sustainable in concept. There is a convenient assumption that government funding and developer contributions are guaranteed to deliver adequate infrastructure. Yet many underlying strategic issues are only now being addressed. These include access to power and water supplies as well as broadband connections, where providers need to be involved early in the planning process.
We should be more ambitious. It is not enough simply to accommodate or contain expansion. Success will depend on the enhancement of life for the host population as well as the incomers. No more lagging infrastructure, then, but a determination to build only to the extent that it is secured.
Success will depend on the enhancement of life for the host population as well as the incomers
We need to take sustainability at its word. First, in relation to build and design quality. We need more affordable homes and they should be built to good standards. Also, there is no point in bringing in people unless employment opportunities are built for them.
Then, we need to exceed the new Building Regulations requirements by imposing, as Daventry is already doing tentatively, some extra green requirements in the brief.
Lastly, we need to look at the environmental setting. In Northamptonshire, this will inevitably be mainly greenfield development set among remaining green fields and small settlements. In general, would be looking for linear features through our landscapes, punctuated by small copses and outcrops.
Ultimately, these proposals will be judged on their own terms of sustainability. Do they create housing and communities that feel safe and comfortable? Has their arrival meant painful confrontation with established residents, or has it been achieved largely by agreement? Do the enlarged communities work? Do the developments respect and even enhance the local environment by pointing to greener futures? Is the scale and timescale practicable? Is the infrastructure keeping pace? Can we actively enhance our appeal, including that for visitors and investors from abroad, by creating new features?
These are hard questions, and no one has the answer yet, but we need to get them right.
Tim Boswell is Conservative MP for Daventry and shadow minister for work and pensions