Housing and the Environment
Our Unique Environment
Yet at the same time, we need to protect the landscape against overdevelopment. The north and the east of the Island in particular are under threat. Our Island infrastructure, composed of a Victorian road system, cannot cope with the excessive volumes of traffic. Our railway system was largely shut in the 1950s and 1960s. We have been given precious little help for the significant increase in population we have alreadyseen in recent years, as developments have not been infrastructure-led. Drivers on the Ryde-to-Newport and Ryde-to-Shanklin routes endure unacceptable delays. Out-of-town shopping centres (Tesco Extra in Ryde, Asda in Newport) and developments on green field sites feed car dependency further.
In Island communities, national parks and AONB, our country needs a system of building that is sensitive to the environment and that caters for the resident population. We do not have this at the moment. Housing is built which is out of reach for local people, and local young people in particular, who are as a result forced out of the areas in which they live or into expensive, often poor quality private sector homes that stretch their budgets to breaking point. On the Island, this process of displacement of our young is accentuated because we are an Island. We need a jobs agenda on the Island, not a speculative house-building agenda.
More broadly, the Isle of Wight needs a reformed model of regeneration: one that invests in people rather than land, and which sees education and the knowledge economy as the true driver of prosperity in all its forms. We need to build communities, not just houses. Using our modest supply of land for aims which have a genuine social worth, such as a higher education or high-tech investment, is more important than providing land for speculative housing. As part of our commitment to our future, we will seek to work with partners so that the Island becomes a national model of genuine sustainability.
Next, we need to use the housing we have, rather than just build more. We have an empty homes register. The Council has powers to act but it could do more. I would like to see it being given greater national powers to take firm action. We should have an active policy of buying-back long-vacant housing (approx. 1,500 properties on the Island) and enabling housing associations to bring it into use. The law needs to be changed.
There are more grants that we can apply for. These include affordable homes programmes - where local authorities and housing associations bid for funding - the Housing Infrastructure Fund - set up to support local authorities to build the infrastructure they need for housing - and the Home Building Fund - a loan finance scheme geared towards small and medium-sized developers. All these funds and grants are available through government websites and we need to make sure that smaller Island builders and developers know about them and work with the Council to access them.
We need an integrated approach to planning. For example, in the centre of Newport we have two large supermarkets – effectively giant bungalows. In some parts of the UK, there would be two storeys of housing above it. Why not on the Island? And is there more that can be done to support turning empty property above shops into flats? Sadly, the previous Government scrapped the capital allowance to develop property above shops. We need to reinstate allowances to encourage landlords to investment in town centre property.
In considering these housing proposals, we are thinking not only of the next five or ten years, but the kind of community we will leave to our grandchildren in 50 years. If we continue to build without thought to future generations, we will ruin the Island in the next few decades.
I believe the Isle of Wight’s housing policy should oppose ALL greenfield development unless that development has strategicadvantage for Islanders and is supported by the local population. A greenfield extension to a strategic employer on the Isle of Wight is an exception; another housing development is not.
Housing for Islanders
In the current climate, I support the building -- or purchase from the private sector by housing association – of between 100 and 300 houses per year to meet assessed need, overwhelmingly for two groups of people. The first group is young people, for whom we need to build social housing and starter homes. The inability of young people to be able to own their own homes is corrosive to social cohesion, deeply unfair and the cause of significant unhappiness. In this group should also be included key worker housing – such as those employed in the public sector. The second group is older residents seeking supported / sheltered housing. We need to make sure our more mature residents have a choice between living in their own homes and moving to a nursing / residential care home, both on grounds of quality of life for elderly people, but also on adult social care costs. Sheltered housing and supported living accommodation is more cost effective in the long run than nursing home care and building sheltered housing also frees up housing stock for others (such as young families).
As part of the new sustainable model of development, I envisage that some of the housing, especially including bungalows, could be purchased by housing associations and repurposed, perhaps by adding a second story to create two properties, thus helping the Island to meet housing targets without eating into our precious landscape. Indeed, a green and sustainable future should become part of the Island’s core identity. We should become national leaders not only in sustainable (re)development, but also in recycling. We need to champion sustainability not only in housing and land use, but in economic growth, use of plastics and energy production. On energy infrastructure and renewables, we should look to develop a smart grid that allows homes and business to control demand for electricity, storing energy in affordable home batteries and then selling back to the grid. Is there more to be done on planning regulation mandating, for example, that new industrial and farm buildings be equipped with solar panels, with the aim of making the Island run on renewable energy?
In addition, we need to support further research into tidal power.
I have been concerned at the low quality of some developments in recent years. We were building better quality housing for poorer Islanders 100 years ago than we do now. We need to ensure better design and quality, and make sure that houses are built in existing communities, near to public amenities, and where possible to a recognisable and distinctive Island design, or innovative low energy designs, sensitive to the built and natural environment. Bog standard, off-the-shelf housing should be objected to on principle.
Outside these areas of special support, I question the basis of government targets for house-building. We do not live in a planned economy. If people wish to buy property, they are free to do so. The most cursory glance at the Isle of Wight County Press shows that much property on the Island remains unsold for long periods, and that there is absolutely no shortage of three and four-bedroom housing -- exactly the kind that developers tell us there is need of, or at least is the type supposedly needed to make the developments viable.
I see no need for the Island to use greenfield sites to provide those houses. If property developers wish to buy individual sites and improve and develop property within communities and on brownfield / developed land, I support that as long as the local community wishes it and they meet the relevant planning policies. I assume that this sort of small-scale development will ensure a modest increase in property on the Island, and therefore a modest increase in the population anyway.
The Isle of Wight needs intelligent, sustainable and sensitive regeneration, to drive economic and social development. The current system needs reform. I will do my best to help reform it.
National Parks, AONBs and Biospheres
The Island is one of the most precious environments in England, mixing rare geology, unique beaches, the richest dinosaur finds in Europe, with scarce, southern downland and marshy inlets. The human addition to this environment has been no less unique. For much of the past 200 years we have been a favoured location for painters and poets, inspired by both the peace of the Island and the inspirational nature of the environment. In addition, we have Neolithic remains, Roman villas, and architecture from almost every era. We need this heritage - human and natural – protected.
Just over half - 52 percent to be exact – of the Island is classed as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). That gives us some protection against over-development, but we are still vulnerable. Inappropriate developments are still being proposed on AONB land.
I would like the Island to consider extending the landcovered by the AONB status. This would potentially cover three areas. First, it would encompass the ‘Calbourne corridor’ between Yarmouth and Newport. This area of land runs to the north of the main AONB ‘block’ on the Island and to the south of the Newtown Estuary AONB. I believe it is in the interests of the long-term protection of the Island’s landscape that this area of land be covered by AONB, preserving the overwhelmingly rural nature of the West Wight. I would also seek to extend the AONB around Godshill and, where possible, between around Wootton and Osbourne House.
Later this year, the Island will to become a UN Biosphere. Whilst this gives us no extra planning powers, it is another marker of the Island’s unique quality. The biosphere is in recognition of both the unique landscape but also mankind’s interaction with it. I will be championing this campaign and encouraging the Government to support it.
Above and beyond the AONB and UN Biosphere plans, there is a third option - that the Island applies to become a National Park.
The rationale for this is as follows.
First, the Island arguably merits such a unique status, for the reasons which I have already articulated. Making the Island England’s “island national park” would confirm our unique status. Second, the Government is welcoming applications. Third, it would help protect our environment for generations to come. Fourth, it would enable us to mount a stronger opposition to fracking.
Fifth, the evidence compiled by Government suggests that National Park status has economic benefits, providing a boost to visitor spend and numbers. Whilst more research is needed and precise amounts have been difficult to quantify, the 2011 National Park Authorities: Assessment of Benefits – working paper, suggested that additional protection could add millions more pounds to the local economy. A Scottish report into the new National Parks in Scotland argued that these designations were a good way to encourage sustainable development. It also argued that National Park status enhanced an area‘s profile, aided recreation and tourism, attracted new business and the park authority itself provided direct and indirect employment. In the paper’s appendix, it cited four international case studies: in Norway, New Zealand, Wales and Poland, where “National Parks have been seen to have brought a clear socio-economic benefit to their local rural areas.”
As far as I am concerned, the Island should have been England’s first national park. National Parks have to meet two criteria: first, natural beauty and second, the opportunities for open-air recreation. Specifically, they should be designated for the purposes of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area concerned, and also promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those areas by the public. It is, for me obvious that the Island fits both those criteria.
A National Park could happen in two ways. First, we could apply as a new national park covering all or almost all of the Island. Second, the New Forest National Park could extend through to the west and south of the Island and be renamed the New Forest and Isle of Wight National Park. The latter option would be the quickest as it is possible to alter the boundaries of a national park quite easily and at modest cost. The first option, whilst clearly the preferential option, would take longer and cost more, but may now be more achievable in light of the Government’s recent announcement.
If some or all of the Island did become a National Park, planning powers would be put into the hands of the Park Authority. However, if this Park authority matched the boundaries of the Isle of Wight Council (as the first option above would) we could seek to have its powers combined with the local authority as already happens with many functions – so in reality the decision-making process would be seamless. Alternatively, as members of the planning committee would be chosen by the Park Authority, the majority of them could be democratically elected Councillors. Therefore, the National Park planning authority would retain a strong Island connection, or possibly even integrate with the Island’s current planning authority.