Wednesday, 15 March 2006

Community before individual

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.


Buckden Dot Net said...

I am suprised that you was in the minority...very suprised, particularly as I had been led to believe that the whole scheme was destined for the scrapheap. Of course my source remains annoynomous...but I remain suprised. Well done for standing on principle...lost that time but there are other 'bones' that need to be chewed where victory can be assured. Would love to have your thoughts on the consequences by the way...for the record like!

Buckden Dot Net said...

Further to the blog itself. I feel that you would be wrong about a third of the houses selling for less than £150K. The following link shows the typical small house in Buckden - a 3 bed semi - currently retailing for nearly £163K:

Based upon the basic principle that this couple's gross earnings were £40K per annum and that their lender (assuming that they are credit worthy) is not recklessly lending at 5 times their income, the average lender would let them have 3.5 times their income...say £140K. However, this is not likely to be a 100% mortage because the interests rates would be punishing. So they would probably get a 95% mortgage and that would afford them a house for around £148K...still leaving the issue of finding £8000 for a deposit plus another £2000 or so for fees, moving etc and then no money left over to spend on the house for new carpets etc...And of course there are no houses for sale at this price in the village because the houses in Buckden are generally reagrded as being over-priced (we'll see what the new A14 does to that!!).

My point is this...surely if we are to provide anything for the village it should be the opportunity for people like those in your example to get onto the housing ladder to start with. We can do this with affordable housing and 'rent to buy' schemes or shared equity projects with gives the borrower a chance to get a more affordable mortgage...and pay the shared equity off when the property sells - providing of course that there is natural inflation in the housing market.

And so, I would have to disagree with you and say that the situation is dire. Buckden is faced with the curse of having an ageing population because young people cannot afford to live here.

That, in the future, will impact on services budgets, the school and many other needy services we currently take for granted. And although we are indeed living longer the ultimate outcome will be that Buckden's population will get older and smaller.

magnus said...

Believe it or not, I have actually heard of Buckden even out here.
For what it is worth I would have to agree with you on "village creep". Here in British Columbia, none of the municipalities seem to care about preserving the area around them or building up a quality community for all concerned. (at least not until it is far too late)
Langley, a formerly rural community, has exploded into strip malls and industrial parks. They sell people on living there by showing shots of Langley Township's beautiful rural areas - but will bulldoze them at a drop of a hat for any developer that happens along.
My hometown is Port Coquitlam and so much of what I loved about that place is gone, paved over for "progress". But this "progress" brings with it a whole host of problems - traffic congestion, inadequate services to meet the needs of an exploding community and the curse of ever rising real estate prices.
Good on you.

Richard Bailey said...

Magnus, I am sure I am not alone among the watchers of this blog, yes all three of them, when I ask how on earth you might have heard of Buckden.
Are you formerly of these parts, and now moved to Canada, or does your aunt Joan live here??!!
Do tell and thanks for tuning in.
Apologies for such parochial stuff on occassions


magnus said...

well, do note my home province is named British Columbia. Not so British anymore as most of us born in BC British Columbians seemed to have moved elsewhere and UK immigration slowed considerably during the 1970's. (I came back to visit and was trapped, otherwise I'd be in Quebec or possibly Wales)
Buckden is just a name I have come across. Perhaps on BBC World or other UK programmes that have been shown over here over the past few decades. I also read The Guardian and other British papers from time to time. Might have met some people from around that area at some point as well.

Magnus, again. said...

BTW, I was randomly skipping through the blogs when I came across yours. It was your sons picture that made me stop.

Anonymous said...

I was at the meeting on Tuesday.
I thought your speech just before the vote at the Parish Council meeting carried conviction and was very persuasive. It was apparent that you had much local knowledge which underpinned it. Many people after the meeting agreed with this view. I agree absolutely that there should be no housing development beyond the existing village boundaries. However, the preferred exception site voted for by the Parish Council is the lesser of two evils because it is less likely to lead to village spread.

I was impressed that the Parish Council allowed everyone at that meeting a chance to express their opinion, whatever it was. Thank goodness for an open forum and local democracy. My big worry now is whether HDC will over-rule what the Parish Council openly voted for. I hope not, but am not certain how pressures from Central Government are likely to affect local democracy. Thanks again for a cogently expressed argument at a most effective point in the proceedings. I hope you will continue to fight for what you believe in.

Mary Shelley