I have been asked by a number of people about the Government’s housing strategy, and how it will affect our area. I thought it might be helpful to explain the situation so that you are fully briefed.
Firstly, there is no doubt that we need to build more houses in the UK. There is a generation of people who are unable to get onto the housing ladder, and we have an acute shortage of property. I would prefer that we weren’t in this position, but a variety of pressures make change inevitable. Just within Surrey, changing demographics have led to a big increase in the number of households and put immense pressure on the housing market.
So it’s unavoidable that every area will have to find ways to increase the local housing stock, including affordable housing. This is not something that is just happening here. Only recently the West Midlands agreed plans to build more than 200,000 new homes. There are pressures right across the country.
I also don’t want the next generation here to feel that they have to move to a different part of the country to find a home. So we do need to build.
But we need to do so thoughtfully and carefully, and make sure that in making additional provision for homes locally, we do not destroy the character of our area.
Local authorities were asked by government to do an assessment of their local housing needs. They are then expected to demonstrate a real commitment to seeking to meet those needs.
I expect this to lead to a lively local debate about how to achieve this. But there are some things that I wanted to make clear right from the start. There is no obligation for local authorities to build on the green belt. Indeed, they are only allowed to do so in exceptional circumstances.
This is particularly important for us as I would not want to see development pressures on the major open spaces in the area. There are a small number of places where I would be happy to see green belt development; an example is the burnt-out old house at the end of Christchurch Road in Epsom. This is a green belt location, and so development is restricted. I would not support the development of the whole site, but I can see no good reason why a substantial, traditionally-styled mansion block should not be built inside and around the old shell of the building.
But it is vital that we protect the open spaces that give the area its character. That must be at the forefront of consideration about planning for the future.
I believe that there is potential to deliver more homes without destroying those open spaces. I have urged the council to develop a master plan for the area around Kiln Lane and Longmead, to create a mixed use development with commercial premises combined with medium-rise residential development. I think this could meet a significant part of our local housing needs.
The Upper High Street site in Epsom provides a real opportunity to develop a substantial, but carefully-designed development that as long as it is designed to fit in with the nearby conservation areas, would make a real difference. I also believe there is a good opportunity above and around Banstead Station. These are three examples of where we can meet housing need sensitively to the surrounding area.
There are also a number of examples of small local shopping parades that could be redeveloped with new local shops below and flats above. This is precisely what has happened with the Aldi shop in West Ewell and the new Marks & Spencer in Ashtead.
What I will fight against is any proposal to comprehensively develop large areas of green belt land. There has been a suggestion from local councillors that Horton Country Park should be developed. This is absurd. It would be wholly wrong, and goes completely against the Government’s housing strategy.
Lastly you may hear that councils have to hit a target or they will lose some of the control they have over planning. If a council simply ignores its local housing needs and refused to make any provision to meet those needs, this might be true.
But no council that shows that it is using best endeavours to provide additional housing will be in this position.
There will clearly have to be greater provision of services like school places and GP surgeries if there is to be new housing in the area, and I will be seeking to ensure that this happens.