Nice idea but…

To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss
To love is to risk not being loved in return,

I can’t help thinking about the old maxim that if something sounds too good to be true then it probably is.

Grant Shapps, our Housing Minister, has now put some flesh on the plans for letting rural local communities decide something of their own fate.

The Right to Build legislation will he says, allow local people and communities across England to decide where to create new homes, shops business and facilities where they want them and where they are needed, not where local councils think they should be.

And, like many things, on paper, it seems like a great scheme. How often have we heard of rural communities slowly dying as one by one the facilities close down through lack of use and people to use them – the local primary school, the local post office, the pub, the bus route. Conversely how often have we seen rural communities swamped by developments which turn them into nothing but commuter dormitories?

So the idea that local communities can have the power to agree developments of no more than 20 homes without having to go through the hoops of the planning system seems a good one if it means that community can build homes for families to keep the school numbers viable or easier-to-manage-in accommodation for elderly people who don’t want to leave their village but who can’t cope in the homes they currently occupy.

The Right to Build vision was launched this week in Essendon, a small village where this year’s primary school intake was less than 10 (although I know parents who would kill for that kind of teacher/pupil; ratio) and which Shapps is using as his example of a community that desperately needs affordable housing if it is to survive as a vibrant community.

I’ve written before about the way the planning system in this country needs an overhaul and about Shapps plans for “localism” and an end to “top down planning” but I still can’t really see how this is going to work. Certainly not in within the existing planning system. Will planners at county level still be able to veto schemes they think are unsuitable? Will they still be able to foist development on unwilling villagers?

And how is it going to be funded? Will villagers have to source developers for themselves or will the developer sector begin rushing in to villages where they believe there is scope for them to get away with building sans planning permission? Are developers supposed to do this almost pro bono or might they be allowed to build a mixture of houses that would give them a decent return on their outlay? And what happens when half the village wants the affordable homes built somewhere nice and near the school, the shops, the bus stop, but the other half wants to preserve the rural views it paid through the nose for?

I’m really not convinced this is going to work. Not because I don’t think it’s a great concept, I do. But I just don’t trust the people to be able to work together to pull it off.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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