Carrie Harper, Plaid Cymru Councillor for the Queensway ward on Wrexham Council
Stats Wales this week published a set of projections that should have prompted outrage across a number of local authorities.
Local councils have been forced by the Labour Government to base the housing figures in their local development plans on these statistics, despite them proving to be wildly inaccurate, and attracting local opposition amid criticism that services and infrastructure are creaking at the seams under the pressure of over development.
Wrexham is a great example in terms of understanding how badly this has gone wrong.
In 2011, the Welsh Government was demanding 13,000 new houses in Wrexham’s Local Development Plan because they said there was going to be a 20% increase in population. That was subsequently halved to a 10% population increase in 2014 because the statistics were wrong.
This week’s figures estimate the population will be minus 1.5%, yes, it’s actually estimated to go into decline. However, there is no suggestion of lowering the housing numbers in the Local Development Plan as a consequence, leaving vast swathes of local green fields on the table for housing that is not needed.
Wrexham is now left unprotected from an extreme level of overdevelopment that cannot be justified by any evidence whatsoever. It’s sadly not a story limited to this part of Wales.
The Welsh Government’s population projections, a mix of birth and death ratios combined with migration estimates, have been used to justify building thousands of new houses right across the country. Plaid Cymru has argued for over a decade that these projections were unrealistic and out of step with reality.
In Wrexham’s case, the past seven years have seen a static population and now this trend is set to continue for the coming decade.
Plaid Cymru has argued that a lot of these estates were being built as overspill from across the border, rather than responding to any genuine local need.
This over-emphasis on migration into Wales as part of the population projections has led to many communities being concreted over, with little or no corresponding investment in local infrastructure and services. It’s a completely unsustainable way to approach community planning.
The fundamental flaw is that a developer led, profit driven approach will never be able to strike the required balance between delivering what a community needs and protecting it from those looking to cash in. In fact, no one ever agreed to such a system in the first place, but it is exactly what we have.
Affordable housing is a perfect topic to illustrate this, especially given it’s something we know for a fact every community needs. It’s also worth noting that the population projections referred to above don’t take any account of affordability at all.
To again use Wrexham as an example, Councillors working on the local housing plan had decided that the county needed 1350 affordable houses over the plan period. Based on objections from developers who wanted to retain their usual profit margin of 15-20%, those numbers were recently halved to 740.
With an increasing number of developers attending planning committees to plead ‘viability’ issues to get out of affordable housing commitments on individual applications, it’s also a safe bet that even those 740 are very unlikely to actually materialise.
This decision to halve the number of affordable houses in Wrexham’s plan was made by planning officers and senior councillors who seem to live in perpetual fear of the ominous Welsh Government Planning Inspectorate. I have some sympathy though, given Wrexham’s first plan was rejected by the Planning Inspectorate primarily for not allocating enough housing in line with Welsh Labour Government population projections. That complete waste of work shockingly cost an estimated £200k of public money, something a hard-pressed local authority could ill afford, and is a scandal in itself.
As it stands, Wrexham is now set to get thousands of houses it doesn’t need, whilst losing out on affordable housing it desperately needs, because the system we have is utterly broken.
There is an even bigger discussion to have about the type of housing our communities need.
Whilst developers prefer executive housing on green fields for obvious reasons, communities often need more robust empty housing strategies, starter homes for young families, more bungalows for people to downsize to, and better use of brownfield sites.
The problem though, is that these conversations aren’t being had, they often simply float off into the ether as the next new commuter estate gets built.
It’s clear that the current approach to planning not only doesn’t work but is highly damaging to communities across Wales.
We’ve all seen its impact in our local areas. It’s not sustainable in any sense of the word but it was infuriatingly inevitable we’d end up here, with a Welsh Government working hand in glove with developers who refuse to listen.
The planning system itself isn’t necessarily the problem but it’s being abused by those who have taken hold of it, and fundamental safeguards have been undemocratically overridden.
We now need a new approach that is based on genuine local need, a system that works as it was intended, to protect our communities from overdevelopment, instead of enabling housing developers to cash in.
We need to stop using bull-in-a-china-shop population projections that have caused untold damage and instead give more power to local authorities, who have a much more nuanced understanding about what their areas need and where local people can genuinely input into the process.
But above all this, we need accountability. It’s that lack of accountability that has allowed this ridiculous situation to carry on for as long as it has, that has to be remedied. Even in the face of damning evidence that there are fundamental flaws with the projections used, all we have is radio silence from Welsh Ministers, who should not only be apologising for the damage done but be busy trying to fix the mess.
As for the notorious Planning Inspectorate where the buck is often passed, it is important to remember that they too are ultimately answerable to the Welsh Ministers. Planning and housing are both devolved, therefore we have the ability to change course and put this right.
The question is whether the current set of Welsh Ministers are finally willing to step up and do the job. If not, they need to prepare to ship out.