We know what’s best for you …

A FEW weeks back I was interviewing a landowner for the book about Dorset that Gay and I are writing. We were talking about the desperate need for housing for local people in rural communities and the way that landowners’ hands are tied.

Planners adhere to strategic plans, and the policy, across rural England, is generally that new housing should be in urban areas. Large developments, mainly by huge national housebuilders, cover the country with pattern-book estates so similar that you can’t tell whether you are on the edge of Shaftesbury, Dorset, or Shrewsbury, Shropshire. There is no flexibility, no encouragement for small-scale developments of affordable homes, designed to fit with the vernacular architecture of the area, to blend organically into the landscape, and to meet a demonstrable local need.

Many landowners, on the other hand, would be willing to give land for houses because they know that the vitality of local communities depends on people living and working in villages, shopping locally, sending their children to local schools and supporting the pub, the church and the other facilities that are the glue of villages and small towns.

The current policies are basically driving a 21st century horse and cart through the networks and structures that have held communities together for centuries.

I was struck, not for the first time, by the complete disconnect that exists between politicians, at local and national level, and the people they represent.

In theory we have a democratic system, but in practice once elected, many politicians ignore the voters and conveniently forget many of their pre-election promises. When this inconvenient fact is pointed out to them, they justify their change of heart as being the way to achieve “the best” for the country or region.

One obvious example is fracking, as demonstrated in the different way in which two MPs in our region behaved.

One, who had announced his opposition to this controversial process before his election to a very safe seat, voted with the government on the issue of allowing fracking beneath National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Challenged by the Green Party after the vote, he said: “I have significant concerns about fracking and I have raised these directly with the Minister. That said, I did vote in favour of the regulations having been assured by the Minister that the principle of fracking has already been accepted by the government and all the Statutory Instrument vote sought to do was to strengthen existing guidance.”

So that’s all right then.

The other MP had also voiced concerns about fracking before the general election, but he voted against allowing the procedure in sensitive and ecologically important areas. He felt he had to follow his conscience. Sadly, he was in a minority in his party and the vote went with the government.

The irony of this vote, within days of the Paris Climate Change conference, was not lost on those who are deeply concerned about the impact of rising temperatures on every aspect of the planet, from the plankton in the far north of the Atlantic Ocean and the fish and seabirds who co-depend on them, to nomadic peoples in equatorial deserts who are being driven off their ancient lands by the complete absence of water for their livestock.

Fracking and climate change are directly related to the problems of rural housing and employment because both represent the conflict of short-term planning and obvious gains (fossil fuels, profits) against medium to long-term sustainability

The landowner has a young family, and they may be the youngest family in their village. It is a situation replicated across the region that will only get worse as more and more young people are forced to move away from villages where there are neither jobs nor homes.

Planning policy is, if anything, even less democratic than the regulations on fracking, on which there was at least a vote.  As it works now, it is virtually impossible to get planning permission for a small number of affordable homes in a rural community.

The policy, as interpreted through local plans, puts almost all the new housing eggs in urban baskets. So, in North Dorset, there is almost no chance of getting permission for a small development of affordable homes for local families and a few workshops or factory units, in former and now disused dairies or other farm buildings.

Instead Gillingham is to have nearly 2,000 houses over the next 20 or so years. The argument, which is moderately (but not totally) persuasive is that Gillingham has a main-line station, easy access to the A303, large industrial estates and good schools.

Meanwhile villages like Kington Magna, just a few miles from Gillingham, have no facilities or services, apart from a village hall, and an ageing but generally affluent population. It is easy (and probably accurate) to imagine that some of these people would object strongly to the idea of affordable homes being built in their rural idyll.

Locals cannot afford homes in pretty villages like Abbotsbury or Cerne Abbas, where any house coming onto the market is snapped up by people looking for second homes or somewhere attractive to retire, or searching for the Country Living ideal of perfection without mud or noisy cockerels.

Last year, in one of those deeply undemocratic changes of policy that are slipped through as “guidance,” the government removed the requirement for 10 per cent of a housing development to be affordable if it was below a total of 1,000 sq.ft (ie about 10 houses).

There are landowners who would release land for homes for local people or offer underused buildings for work units. But even if they or a housing association can get planning permission for say, 10 houses to rent and half a dozen workshop units, the government has another spike to drive into the wheel that has just started turning.

Promoting the idea that everyone should want to be a home-owner, the government has said that housing associations that build affordable homes for rent will have to allow the tenants to buy them, thus removing them from the rented sector.

One or two sales down the line these once-affordable homes will have crossed the affordability tipping point. The consequence is that farmers or landowners who might have given such land are now unlikely to do so – and if they do, and the houses are in due course bought and sold on, this source of affordable land for rural housing will dry up.

Fanny Charles