Assembly cuts home levels

Housing numbers in the next South East planning strategy have been reined in, reports David Dewar.

It is just over a century since H G Wells sat down in Woking to write War of the Worlds. The Surrey town features heavily in the novel and now prides itself as the birthplace of modern science fiction.

Last Monday the H G Wells Suite really did start to resemble a fantasy world as the South East England Regional Assembly met to decide on draft proposals for the future development of the region. The surreal mood was set right from the start as delegates had to negotiate a herd of UK Independence Party protesters encamped at the entrance.

Once safely inside, assembly members themselves entered the world of make believe in their discussion of the South East Plan. The crucial meeting often descended into chaos, with members changing the wording of amendments at the last minute and proposing counter-amendments on the hoof.

Assembly staff have prepared proposals for the regional spatial strategy for the South East from 2006 to 2026 following extensive technical analysis, modelling work and surveys, including a series of opinion polls carried out by MORI. The resulting draft document sets out in stark terms the challenges for the UK's most populous, most successful but also most pressurised region.

The South East is the most prosperous region outside London. But as the draft plan points out, it is also the region with the widest range of economic disparities outside the capital. It is also an international gateway whose road and rail systems are among the most heavily congested in Europe.

There is no doubt that the regional economy will continue to expand.

The draft strategy aims for three per cent gross value added (GVA) per annum. This level is lower than in recent years "but is considered a prudent base in view of economic and other considerations", it explains. However, for regional planners this raises the key question of the price of housing and the barrier that it poses to growth prospects.

With 29,000 South East households lacking self-contained accommodation, affordable home shortages are leading to recruitment and retention problems for employers. The house building rate has only recently come into line with planning targets, the draft document observes.

The officers' proposals set out three options for housing numbers over the next 20 years, starting from 29,500 and climbing to 32,000 or 36,000 homes a year. This range of growth options was approved by the assembly's regional planning committee a month ago (Planning, 12 November, p2), only to be rejected by the assembly last week.

The higher growth options were judged sufficient to allow current shortfalls and the backlog of required housing to be tackled. Political concern prompted officers to put forward the 29,000 figure, which equates to the current regional planning guidance (RPG) target plus the additional homes planned in the South East growth areas.

Last week's wrecking motion came from Kent County Council leader Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart. His proposed amendment expressed continuing concern over the levels of suggested growth based on the environmental impact of the proposed development and grave doubts over the likelihood of the proposed infrastructure's ability to support it.

No doubt with one eye on the forthcoming general election, Bruce-Lockhart was keen that the assembly should not be seen to blindly follow government housing targets. "We have a duty to come to our own distinct view on behalf of the people of the South East," he said. "We should weigh very carefully the issues of housing demand and protect our countryside's priceless and unique heritage."

He accepted the message from assembly data that two-thirds of the current RPG growth rate is essential to cater for people living in the region.

He advocated consulting on a lower set of housing options, starting from 25,000 per year, the average rate of building over the past few years, rising to either 28,000 or 32,000 per year and scrubbing the 36,000 per year option.

Other members of the assembly are aghast at the effects of the amendment.

Delegates from the economic sector, including the CBI, warned that lower rates of house building would signal that the South East is closed for business and that the proposed economic growth rate in the plan could be jeopardised.

Oxford City Council Labour member Alex Hollingsworth said: "This rate would have repercussions for public services and it is important that we have those repercussions put before us. The lower option of 25,500 will absolutely guarantee two things: that we will not be able to achieve the three per cent GVA growth rate and that the lack of housing and problems of homelessness in the region will get worse."

In the event, the assembly voted by 137 votes to 69 in favour of Bruce-Lockhart's amendment, and the strategy will now go out to consultation based on the lower house building options. The assembly then went on to debate affordable housing policies in the plan. After much debate and confusion, it agreed to accept the policy package advocated by the regional planning committee.

This commits the region to providing 25 per cent of new housing as social rented accommodation and between ten and 15 per cent as other forms of affordable housing. In effect, it challenges South East councils to deliver a step change in affordable housing provision. "I was pleased that members supported our approach to affordable housing," said Mike Gwilliam, the assembly's head of planning and transport. "It is a very important part of the plan."

Gwilliam is now looking forward to public consultation on the document.

Despite the atmosphere of farce that attended its approval, he argues that the high level of interest in the strategy proves that regional planning is in rude health. Now the process of taking the plan forward is likely to become even more interesting.

Formal consultation will be carried out early next year, after which the plan will return to the assembly for tweaking and rubber-stamping.

A public examination will then take place at the end of next year. Anyone who remembers the public examination into the previous South East RPG and Stephen Crow's resultant report will know that we are in for some entertaining tussles.

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