We must resist the relentless development turning the north of Wales into ‘Cheshire on the cheap’
From sprawling commuter estates in the north-east to holiday homes in the north-west, it’s clear we need to overhaul Welsh housing policy.
This week saw Wrexham Council submit a last-ditch proposal to more than halve the number of affordable homes in the borough’s Local Development Plan (LDP) – down from 1283 to just 505.
So, it feels like a good time to write about the urgent reforms needed to tackle the imbalance in our planning system and in Welsh housing policy generally.
It always comes back to the same basic question, just who is our current system there to serve?
There is no doubt that reforms and a strategy re-think in terms of housing has been needed in Wales for a very long time. Councils across the country have struggled to resist the enforcement of housing numbers being dictated from the Labour Welsh Government through Local Development Plans for the last decade.
Their policy of build, build and build and then build some more has met with a fierce backlash in communities up and down the country, each from a different local perspective but all in agreement that this current approach to housing in Wales is fundamentally flawed.
Welsh communities are fed up with the ever-expanding sprawl of speculative development eating up green fields, merging villages and increasingly piling pressure on stretched local infrastructure, all whilst local housing need goes unmet.
I often hear defenders of the current system, usually developers, claim that more housing drives down house prices but if anywhere is a concrete example of why that’s nonsense, it’s Wales, where prices have surged despite large-scale building.
There is also a growing frustration at the lack of local control over planning generally and particularly over the ironically titled ‘Local Development Plan’ process, which is evidently more about facilitating developers to build on every last blade of grass, than it is about responding to genuine local housing need.
Rather than being a protective filter against unsustainable development, which is surely its core purpose, our planning system has instead been hijacked to open the flood gates.
This is, of course, great if you’re a developer making millions in the process, but not so good if you’re struggling to afford a home whilst watching your local green fields disappear under concrete.
The vast majority of houses planned, certainly in the north-east and along the northern coast, are “market housing” rather than affordable homes. The volumes proposed by the Labour Government do not meet local needs, they are designed to meet demand for in-migration from across the border, a strategy that has been openly discussed and documented by councils locally and the Welsh Government for a number of years.
Although some migration is of course welcomed and has in fact always happened organically, the result of the excessive over-development we’ve seen since the 2000s is tens of thousands of three- and four-bedroom executive houses, advertised with commuting distances to Chester, Manchester and Liverpool. It goes without saying that they are not affordable for the majority of local people.
This is not exactly what you could describe as sustainable in any way shape or form and is resented by many who feel aggrieved at their local area becoming ‘Cheshire on the cheap’.
In areas such as the Gwynedd and Ynys Môn the challenges are slightly different, with out-migration a huge problem due to locals being priced out of the housing market. Holiday homes are a growing blight in the north-west, pricing local people out and in turn undermining the future of Welsh as a living community language.
Although this problem has been spiralling for many years, it has generally been ignored by a Government focused on opening up the A55 to the queue of developers waiting to cash in.
It’s also difficult to see how this current approach to housing fits with legislation such as the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act – how can the current policies possibly be sustainable either in the short or longer-term?
Relentless development like this also jars completely with the Welsh Government’s recent declaration of a climate emergency. How is it sustainable either environmentally or socially to encourage the building of houses that aren’t needed on such a massive scale, whilst also failing to get to grips with local housing needs?
Having been directly involved in the process on a local level and seen my council try to bend the LDP to meet Welsh Government demands, the current approach has always struck me as highly damaging, out-dated in its thinking and completely illogical from a Welsh perspective.
The basis for the allocation of land for housing is based on flawed population projections that reflect past unsustainable growth rather than looking forward and designing land use for the future.
Local development plans need to be just that – locally driven and designed to respond sustainably to local housing need, not driven by the market. Local planning committees need to be free to make decisions that benefit their local communities without fear of being overruled by some remote Planning Inspectorate on appeal.
This is not rocket science. We have had sustainable communities in Wales for generations, and we know how to do this better than most. We simply need to acknowledge that our communities are delicate eco-systems in their own right and stop damaging them.
The Government has a direct responsibility to not only to safeguard and meet community needs but also to respect local voices. With Government comes responsibility and sometimes even more importantly, accountability.
As communities grow increasingly angry and alienated about having their needs cast aside in favour of developers profit margins, it’s clear that Welsh Labour will not get away with using sleight of hand to dodge this issue for much longer.
The finger is pointing in a very clear direction in terms of who is responsible for the current chaotic mess and it’s obvious that reform is urgently needed. Labour have had long enough to acknowledge their mistakes and to change direction, they’ve failed miserably to act and worse, have pushed on regardless.
It’s now time for them to get out of the way, so we can transform Welsh housing policy and bring it back into balance.