By the chair of “Community Voice on Planning” and echoes a very similar situation in her district to ours – all you would need to do is change the names.
by Julie Mabberley
Wantage and Grove Campaign Group campaign manager
This week is the first week of the examination for the Vale of the White Horse District Council Local Plan.
Planning Inspector Malcolm Rivett is hearing views from the great and good, answering the question: “Is the identified objectively assessed need for housing of 20,560 new dwellings (an average of 1,028 per year), for the Vale of the White Horse, soundly based and supported by robust and credible evidence?”
There are many people across the Vale who say it is not.b The logic is very simple. The number of jobs which theoretically could be created between now and 2031 was calculated. They then used these figures to estimate how many houses would be needed if these jobs materialised.
The problem is that if the jobs projection is fantasy, as many people think it is, then the “objectively assessed” housing number is also fantasy.
The employment forecasts were pulled together by Cambridge Econometrics to justify bids for Government money for the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP). These employment forecasts were optimistic figures based on how many jobs might be created across Oxfordshire with lots of investment by the Government, European Union and other organisations by 2031.
A company called GL Hearn was then commissioned by our district councils to estimate housing need, assuming that all of these forecast jobs will actually exist. This is the Oxfordshire Strategic Housing Market Assessment, or SHMA. There are many who believe that this is a story worthy of LewisCarroll himself.
Take the agricultural industry, for example. In the Vale of the White Horse, the Government statistics show that in 2011 there were about 600 people working in agriculture. Cambridge Econometrics says that by 2031 there will be about 1,500 people working in agriculture.
Even the National Farmers’ Union says that agricultural employment is actually declining. So that’s about 750 new homes which supposedly will be needed for additional agricultural workers by 2031.
A more realistic assessment might be that there may be agricultural workers looking for new jobs. Actual employment figures across the Vale of the White Horse haven’t changed much since 2000.
In 2000, according to Government statistics, there were 63,000 jobs and by 2014 there were 62,700 jobs. So overall employment is static, but Cambridge Econometrics thinks that over the next 15 years employment will grow by 22,982 jobs. Based on figures for the last 15 years, employment may not grow at all.
This forecast of 22,982 new jobs translates into 20,560 houses across the Vale by 2031, in among the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Oxford Green Belt, the flood plains and, of course, the land earmarked for the new Thames Valley reservoir.
This means building more than 1,000 houses a year every year. We haven’t achieved that at any time in recent history. In fact, during the past 20 years, there have been an average of 392 houses built every year in the Vale.
Now we all know we need more houses, particularly houses that our children can afford to buy or rent, but the identified objectively assessed need for housing of 20,560 new dwellings (an average of 1,028 per year) for the Vale of the White Horse is totally unrealistic.
The law states that the district council must approve enough new planning applications to meet the ‘objectively assessed need for housing’ for the next five years, plus a 20 per cent margin. If they don’t, then the developers can appeal to a planning inspector who will approve them, because the local plan says we need them.
Developers won’t start building houses unless they will make enough profit to satisfy their shareholders. That means keeping prices high.
Great Western Park in Didcot is years behind the planned development schedule, because not enough people want to buy the houses. Yet people working at Harwell, on public sector salaries, can’t afford them.
The problem is that approving a housing development like Grove Airfield – with 2,500 new homes, a new commercial centre for the village, a secondary school and two primary schools – isn’t working. This was recommended for approval in 2013, yet the legal agreements with the developers and landowners still aren’t signed and detailed plans haven’t been submitted.
Something is wrong with the planning system. Silly housing targets let developers get permission to build executive homes in rural villages where little, if any, expensive infrastructure, like new roads and schools, has to be paid for. Few existing residents can afford them and it isn’t going to create homes for our children.
The Oxfordshire Strategic Housing Market Assessment is fantasy and not soundly-based or supported by robust and credible evidence.