Redhill Councillor debates Green Belt and housing policy on BBC Any Questions

Any Questions in BletchingleyWhen BBC Radio 4’s discussion show Any Questions was recorded in Bletchingley this week, local Green Councillor Jonathan Essex was one of the handful of people picked to put a question to the panel.

This week, the panel consisted of three MPs: Michael Fallon (Conservative, Sevenoaks), Sadiq Khan (Labour, Tooting) and Tom Brake (Lib Dem, Carshalton and Wallington) and Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director-General of the National Trust.

The best way to provide social housing?

Jonathan asked, “Are extensions into the Green Belt and building in back gardens the best way to provide the social housing we need?”

The three MPs focussed on the back garden extension aspect. It was shocking to realise that Michael Fallon MP was actually ignorant of his own Government’s plan that conservatories and extensions should be allowed without planning permission, and had to be corrected by Fiona Reynolds and Sadiq Khan.

Let’s redevelop empty properties

Jonathan responded to their comments, saying, “It’s easy to focus on Green Belt and NIMBY issues and forget the need to develop our economy across the country and provide social housing where it’s needed.

“Maybe that needs policies to free up the land banks which are held by the developers and change the rules to make it easier to redevelop empty properties rather than always build new ones…

“In Redhill we’ve got loads and loads of empty offices in and around the town centre. In Basingstoke they have redeveloped empty offices into residential housing. It seems ridiculous that many of these sites aren’t released in part because there is a [zero] VAT tax rate on new build and there’s a disincentive to redevelop these derelict places.”

Huge opportunities

Fiona Reynolds made an eloquent defence of the planning system, and summed up the debate, saying, “I think Jonathan’s absolutely right that there are huge opportunities in our existing urban areas, both of buildings that are poorly used but also there is still a lot of brownfield land that is not people’s gardens that could be developed.

“If there is a real urgent need it’s not only that we protect beautiful places but we also plan positively for the kind of communities people really want to live in and that does of course involve social housing but also green spaces, doctors’ surgeries, primary schools, all the social infrastructure. We’re bad at doing that. We build just acres of houses and not all the community-based infrastructure that goes with it and there’s a huge opportunity existing in our towns and cities.”

Green Belt review

It’s depressing that the Government clearly sees Green Belt as an obstacle to growth, when that is not the case.  The Government’s own figures show that the amount of brownfield land becoming available for re-development is far outstripping the rate at which it is being used and there is enough available for 1.5 million new homes. Even in the South East, where housing demand is highest, land supply outpaces demand with a quarter  of suitable brownfield plots going unused.

Inspectors  examining our Council’s draft local plan have called for the Council to carry out a  ‘review’  of  the  Green  Belt  to accommodate up to 2,180 new homes. We will fight this and look for other ways to supply the new homes needed, including imaginative re-development of redundant buildings.

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