Where will new homes go?

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Gordon Brown's move into Number 10 has seemingly refocused the government's mind on housing. On Wednesday, Mr Brown said he wanted to see three million new properties built in England by 2020, a rise of about 250,000.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Gordon Brown's move into Number 10 has seemingly refocused the government's mind on housing.

On Wednesday, Mr Brown said he wanted to see three million new properties built in England by 2020, a rise of about 250,000.

No breakdown exists at the moment, but if each of the nine English regions were to get an equal share, that would see an extra 28,000 homes in the east of England - pushing the totals of new properties currently earmarked from 78,000 to beyond 100,000.

Some of the detail could emerge in a government green paper next week.

Meanwhile, many of the initiatives in Mr Brown's "summer statement", such as turning over redundant government and council-owned land to housing, have their origins in previous policy announcements - hence Tory leader David Cameron's jibe in the House of Commons that he had heard it all before.

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The prime minister's political antennae may have been refocused by the priority given to the housing issue by John Cruddas during the Labour deputy leadership campaign.

Yet what will it really mean in practice?

Demand is greater than supply, potential sites, and particularly brownfield sites, have mostly been identified, raising questions about whether it is greenbelt land which will be developed.

But most worryingly of all, prices are outstripping the ability to pay of wannabe homeowners whether it is for a home in the Golden Triangle of Norwich to the villages of north Norfolk.

Housebuilding rates in the region are well down on the numbers needed to meet the totals set by the East of England Regional Assembly.

And those numbers were already in dispute as the government had called for the totals to be increased.

However, assembly members, still waiting for a final steer from government on the plan, are adamant that their totals are already at the upper limit of what can be accommodated.

John Reynolds, chairman of the assembly's planning committee, said there was no room for any more growth.

And he fears the government will simply encourage developers to bolt on extra houses to proposed developments without regard to the strain it could place on local services.

"We have had a robust process to produce a definitive plan and made a step change in the housing allocation across the region," he said. "To say he wants to make further changes is just not good enough.

"He has also said there isn't going to be any extra money for the infrastructure and the transport proposals, so there aren't going to be enough resources. That will worry people that we could have houses put up without the jobs and infrastructure."

In Norfolk, Paul Crick, head of strategy and performance at the county council, said it was too early to know precisely what extra demands could be placed on the county.

But he admitted that dealing with existing targets was a challenge.

"It's not just the roads and the schools, it's about the water supply and the energy supply," he said. "All of this will have an impact.

"Some areas, like Norwich, Thetford and King's Lynn, want the develop-ment to enable economic growth."

His preferred vision is to create a series of hubs around market towns which would link villages, with good bus connections in place to ferry people from village to town and reduce the need to travel.

"We would encourage any development to be in or near existing urban areas. What we wouldn't want to see is all the villages getting hammered, because that will mean more cars and accessibility problems."

He said it was also important to make sure money was available to fund services such as schools and libraries before homes were built.

"I am trying to encourage upfront investment in the infrastructure," he added. "Invariably all the money comes at the end."

But the real key to unlocking Mr Brown's vision is hard cash. And there is little sign that the amounts needed are going to be made available.

"Can you picture 33,000 new houses? It's effectively four Derehams," said Mr Crick. "When you think about it in those terms, that's a lot of building in 15 years. For every 7,000 houses, you need one secondary school - so that's four new schools

"There is £6bn-worth of schemes in the region and £800m on the table - that's a massive deficit," he added.

"The 33,000 homes for the Norwich area are only going to be delivered if we get the investment - otherwise the centre of Norwich is going to grind to a halt."

Tim Godden, a rural housing enabler at Norfolk Rural Community Council, said there was a need to see a sprinkling of homes across villages to help keep smaller communities viable.

Existing targets fell well short of what was needed and he was concerned the focus was mainly on urban areas.

"Part of my job is to find the exact need in every parish so development is designed to house people who need it," he said. "The target is 1,000 new affordable homes in East Anglia - 75pc needs to be in areas below 3,000 people.

"That's 300 a year for the region, which is so ridiculously low it's laughable.

"We need more housing and we need more affordable homes. It's all very well setting targets, but without putting a mechanism in place to fund it, it's not going to happen."

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