Joined up thinking on planning?

We noted this news item with some interest: Thurrock Council sign up to “common approach” for development of 90,000 homes in region. On the surface, it looks as though the Association of South Essex Local Authorities (ASELA) are treating the need to look at infrastructure issues to serve the needs of the population that will come with the 90,000 new homes that are mooted to be built across the region over the next twenty years with the gravity it deserves. Within the constraints local authorities operate in and the fact these housing targets are more or less imposed upon them by central government, being charitable, they’re probably doing the best they can in difficult circumstances to deal with this.

However, there’s a massive elephant in the room – our noisy, greedy all consuming neighbour otherwise known as London. As we have written and said more times than we care to remember, what happens with the housing situation in London has a direct impact on us out here along the estuary. Again, as we have written and said more times than we care to remember, London is being turned into a welcome destination for the global super rich – and their money. An obscene amount of money has been poured into property development in the capital and a lot of that is in the form of luxury apartments. Apartments that function as a crash pad when the super rich float through London but don’t want to lower themselves to book a hotel room. Apartments that are probably empty for nine months of the year. Then there’s the apartments that are purchased and left empty as investment vehicles to be flipped for a tidy profit. Also, there are the streets of barely occupied luxury houses in boroughs such as Kensington & Chelsea where there are very few lights on at night because hardly anyone’s living in them on a full time basis.

We have the obscene situation where property in London is seen as a cash cow as opposed to providing a decent place to live for the workers needed to keep the capital and its economy functioning. Workers who in order to find a place to live are forced to move further and further away from London and endure long and arduous commutes. A combination of work and commuting that leaves them exhausted and having no meaningful life outside of the weekend. The southern half of Essex has been lined up to become what will to all intents and purposes, be a dormitory for workers who have been priced out of London. Sure, we know that there will be an effort to create employment opportunities in the region such as the port at London Gateway and the expansion of logistics facilities along the estuary. Not everyone living in the region will be travelling into London for work but a substantial proportion will.

The point we want to make is that despite all of the fancy verbiage coming from ASELA, they will not make any reference to the obscenely distorted housing situation in London where property is seen as a cash cow as opposed to providing homes for people. ASELA are dutifully doing the bidding of a government that is actively supporting the project of making London a welcome home for the global super rich. Basically, they’ve been tasked with attempting to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear with both hands tied behind their backs. Whatever they do, they cannot even contemplate asking a few pertinent questions as to what the heck is going on with the housing situation in London.

When you have the prospect of 90,000 homes being built across the region in the next twenty years which with the best will in the world from the planners tasked to deliver this, will result in an urban sprawl that will make the southern part of Essex resemble Middlesex, understandably, existing residents are going to be concerned. It’s not NIMBYism to be concerned that the physical and social infrastructure will be there to support the extra population. It’s not NIMBYism to fear that the open spaces and countryside that we escape to in order to get away from the stress of modern life will be obliterated. It’s not NIMBYism to conclude that the grandiose planning involved in delivering an extra 90,000 homes in the south of Essex is something that’s imposed upon us with little or no consultation. When large scale planning like this is imposed from above, it’s hardly surprising that not only are people concerned about the impact on their quality of life, they get pretty resentful as well.

Again, as we’ve written before, it’s the reactionary political elements who will pick up on this concern and resentment and exploit it for their own divisive, nefarious and hateful purposes. With our very limited resources, we do our level best to explain what’s going on and put it into some kind of context. One that highlights the impact of property in London being seen as a cash cow as opposed to providing vital housing. One that draws attention to the fact that the planning ‘process’ we have and the system of local and national governance that informs it is simply unfit for purpose. One that draws all of this together to make the case that the political, economic and social system we have which forces all of this upon us is unsustainable, unfit for purpose and ultimately, needs to be swept away. One that starts to offer a vision of a society where people’s needs can be met in a just, sane and sustainable way instead of one in thrall to the profit motive.

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Interesting developments in Basildon

On the evening of Tuesday 13th March, the Infrastructure, Growth and Development Committee of Basildon Council was due to meet at the Towngate Theatre to discuss the borough’s local plan and potentially approve the plan so it could be presented to the full council on March 22nd. Normally, council committee meetings will only attract a scattering of those willing to spend an evening listening to councillors and officers talking about what may seem to be quite arcane issues. That was not the case on Tuesday 13th March when queues stretched around the Towngate ahead of the meeting with the venue reaching its 200 capacity leaving 350 people standing outside. See here for the full story in the Echo: Vital meeting on Basildon’s housing plan postponed as 350 left out in the cold

Suffice to say the meeting was adjourned and has been rescheduled for the 19th March in what the council think will be a larger venue. Is this surge of interest in the future development of Basildon a positive development? An initial analysis suggests that the answer is yes…and no… Yes because any indication that people care about the future of the town they live in and want a say in how that’s planned is a healthy sign they’re not prepared to leave matters to councillors and council officers any longer and want a genuine say. Yes because Basildon Council got a shock on Tuesday 13th March as they did not expect such a high level of interest in their deliberations and were totally overwhelmed by what happened. Hopefully, this may cause some of them to reflect on how they have failed to fully engage residents in the process and that they need to completely rethink how they go about this. Although to be honest, given the way local governance is structured at the moment, we’re not going to be holding our breath waiting for this to happen…

While more homes are needed, people are rightly asking questions as to who they are for? From what we’ve seen of the plans so far, what has been planned will make scant impact on the waiting list for social housing on Basildon. A waiting list that has been rigged so that the numbers on it have been substantially reduced. Most of what is planned is private housing, a fair chunk of which is being pitched towards those working in London but have been forced to look further afield to buy somewhere as a result of the skewed property market in the capital. Understandably there are concerns about provision of the necessary infrastructure needed to support an increased population. We’re talking about roads, public transport provision, schools, doctors, dentists…the list goes on. It always seems to be the case that the housing gets built first and the infrastructure always struggles to catch up afterwards. While many people recognise there is a housing crisis that needs to be resolved, they’re not at all convinced that local authorities and government have the answers to it.

While we broadly welcome the display of people power that manifested itself at the Towngate on Tuesday March 13th there is a potential downside to this… Namely the NIMBY element who refuse to look at the bigger picture which includes the distortion of the property market in London as a result of the global super rich parking their ill gotten gains in block after block of empty apartments to be flipped for a profit while ordinary Londoners are forced out of the capital. A NIMBY element that so long as developments are banished from their areas, have no qualms about them taking place elsewhere. The talk of a larger number of people from Billericay coming down to the rescheduled meeting on March 19th suggests that the NIMBY element is mobilising to secure their interests without any regard for the bigger picture. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this situation and doing what we can to influence it so it is a genuine display of people power as opposed to a smaller group of NIMBYs.