Posted Under: Communities,Environment
It has been announced today that just 4 of 15 proposed eco-towns are to go ahead. In the face of very substantial local opposition a host of proposed developments have been scrapped. As anybody who lives in London will tell you, new developments are desperately needed. Our cities are crowded and our house prices – notwithstanding current trends – have been going through the roof. And today it is harder than ever to reduce such dramatic price rises to a question of speculation. Even in this current dip – even now that all the reasonably savvy speculators have started selling – prices are several times what they were 10 or 11 years ago. In reality, hous prices have long reflected a crisis of availability generated by a basic mismatch of demand and supply. As the population of this country has risen rapidly, as families have got smaller, and as people have continued to gravitate to the south east, the development of housing has been straight jacketed. Straightjacketed – amongst other things – by rural communities that are insistent upon their ‘rights’ to be surrounded by roving fields, to which I will return.
Rural activists opposed to the development of eco-towns have found numerous ways to rationalise their positions – some plausible and some implausible. Yet lurking at various depths beneath the suface has been the fact that the proposed towns would contain 30-50% social housing. When East Lindsey District council withdrew its plans to co-operate in building an eco-town in Lincolnshire its spokesman was fairly explicit. “This is a rural area”, he said, “and the people have said that they don’t want a 5,000 house council estate dumped on their back door.” Indeed the language of social ’dumping’ has been a feature of opposition to the eco-towns. As tory housing minister Grant Shapps wittily remarked, “All the low-flush toilets in world can’t make dumping a housing estate on green fields somehow eco-friendly.”
Yet the most oft-repeated criticism of the eco-towns project is its failure to sufficiently take into account give sufficient weight to ’local opinion’. And this really is the crux of the matter. Because, when it comes to housing and rural space, it is high time we got a bit better at riding roughshod over local opinion. Our starting point must be that the approval, or otherwise, of new housing developments is not a communal perogative but a national issue – and an urgent one at that. I must admit that as a Londoner I really do find it difficult to understand why people would wish to live in sparsely populated communities. I have no idea why people are happy to choose betwen going to The White Lion or going to The Red Lion or taking a hike through some grass. Nonetheless I am willing to accept that the desire to be surrounded by roving fields is a legitimate lifestyle preference. However it is just that – a very difficult to accomodate lifestyle preference. And we cannot continue to accomodate such preferences without regard to the needs of the wider community.
As a little post script I will say just this. We have heard a hell of a lot about rural post offices being shut down over the past few years. Undoubtedly such shut downs should be opposed, and undoubtedly they hit the most vulnerable members of the community hardest. At the same time, it extremely expensive to offer such services to very sparsely populated communities. Perhaps rural communities might consider whether allowing their towns and villages to grow a little in size and density would make such post offices viable, rather simply expecting a blank check from urban Britain.