Well tonight it has finally happened. After two years at the very bottom of the political ladder, I have finally had to choose whether to vote on an emotive issue according to my beliefs or whether to go with the flow. I chose to argue my case and vote accordingly. I ended up in a minority of one and I don't mind admitting that it is unnerving.
The issue is affordable housing and the location is the quiet village of Buckden in Huntingdonshire.
So why did I break the social taboo and vote against an affordable housing proposal?
1. Village Boundaries. Buckden's clear and distinct boundaries are of exceptional importance to maintaining the integrity of the village in the long term. The proposed "exception sites" are outside the village limits and as such would require the compromise of this boundary. A compromise of this sort leaves the village exposed to further development or village creep. Equally, other boundaries start to feel exposed.
2. Housing Need. The cited housing need stemmed from a survey taken 18 months ago which showed that around 20 local people would want to take advantage of affordable housing if more existed. The desire for housing in a place like Buckden will always exist and 18 months after these houses are built, it will be possible to do another housing survey that will show exactly the same thing. Then what? Another 10 houses? And another? And another? There is no question in Buckden to which the answer is "10 houses".
3. Housing balance. For a village of this size (1500 houses) the ratio of high and low cost houses is actually highly respectable. I would say that at least a third would sale on the open market for less than £150,000. On current lending rates, a couple with two earners bringing in around £35 - 40 k (e.g. two teachers or a teacher and a nurse) can afford such a mortgage. The situation is simply not as dire as people make out.
4. Community balance. I believe that Buckden is a well balanced village with a thriving local economy and a very advantageous ratio of people to services. That is what makes this village such a popular place to live and precisely the reason why people will always want to live here. Difficult though it is to say, I believe that Buckden has to hold a line. Allowing development or village creep, however small or seemingly inconsequential, simply destroys the very village qualities that make Buckden such a lovely place to live in the first place.
5. Lack of planning. The proposal had all the hall marks of being driven by the availability of land rather than the needs of the village. It was said many times that the number of houses was not enough to solve the problem. Village creep is the worst form of development as it tends to drift and be unplanned. But the District Council has a development plan. Huntingdonshire does need a great many houses. But the answer, as they know well, is to provide them within a properly planned and infrastructured site, not to bolt them onto the side of villages. The housing shortage both locally and nationally, must be solved on a much more impressive scale.
6. Integration. Many times it was said that affordable housing needs to be integrated into communities. Again, which ever way you look at it, these proposed sites achieve anything but integration. Worst of all they take the village in entirely the wrong direction - towards the River Great Ouse flood plain and closer towards the sewage works. We already have newly built Closes within the village boundaries that are finding it hard to integrate.
7. Assurances. On admission by Council Officers, the "Buckden only" covenant turns out to be a "Buckden first" priority. There is no such assurance that they can give you. There is no way to predict future ownership of such houses within a small village as you can, say, in Huntingdon. Within one or two generations of ownership, you can be sure that gaps in demand will let outsiders in and only months later a Buckden resident will be left without a house.
So there you have it. A large number of problems and issues that left me unable to follow the crowd. In essence, I have not been persuaded that there are sufficient desired benefits to the village in these particular proposals such as to outweigh the many and varied dangers to the long term integrity of the village that they pose.
I have said many times that I believe Buckden is a very healthy size and does not appear to either want or need to grow at this time. I am, however, not against development per se. I am just certain that if it happens, it must be lead by the needs and desire of the community, must demonstrably benefit the community and must be formally planned to ensure that all manner of services and infrastructure are put in place to support it.
History will show that I voted against affordable housing but to be very clear, I voted against this proposal for affordable housing at this time and in this place. If I am wrong I will be the first to admit it but I think carefully about the arguments and decisions I make and I am consistent and I am principalled - the community should come before the individual and the interests of the majority should take precedence over the minority.