|An economically important bridge fully administered by Highways England|
It remains Westminster’s intention that the tolls be removed by the end of 2018. In the meantime the tolls will fund the annual maintenance and operational costs average £15 million between both bridges and the UK Westminster government has said the continuation of tolling will help pay for their upkeep.
Naturally this good news has been accompanied by whining from the usual Labour suspects, who did little during the 13 years of Labour government’s in Westminster to alleviate the plight of commuters and businesses who had little choice but to cough up the ever increasing toll fee to get to work or to do business.
While the long suffering commuters who have been taxed for going to work, and many businesses are looking forward to the demise of the Severn Bridge tolls, there will be consequences for all of us, who are becoming increasingly second class subjects, in an increasingly unequal union. It may well be the estate agents and house builders who really cash in. Once the tolls go house prices and the pressure to build new houses to deal with the demand for cheaper housing from across the bridge.
Simply building houses in south Monmouthshire, Newport and Torfaen to cash in on the projected housing shortage in the Bristol area is not acceptable; it fundamentally fails to solve the local housing shortage. I have no doubt that local residents will be effectively priced out of the market. As any proposed houses will be priced to maximise profits and effectively marketed and sold in Bristol.
Wales needs to have substantially more affordable housing otherwise an entire generation will miss out on the reasonable expectation of having a decent home. The supply of more affordable housing should be met through a combination of bringing empty properties back into use, and new developments of mixed housing in the social and private sectors, but only, when local needs and environmental sustainability have been taken into account.
Our country would be well served by the establishment of a National Housing Company, which could borrow against rents to build a new generation of public rental housing in Wales limited in number only by demand. Whatever Government holds power in Cardiff Bay should support Local Authorities that wish to build new Council Housing.
Local Authorities should be expected to agree targets for supplying affordable housing, including new social housing, with the Welsh Government, but should be given the flexibility to decide how they would achieve this based upon the needs of their area. Local Authorities will be able to develop joint plans with neighbouring local authorities, or work through housing associations or the National Housing Company, if they believed this was the best way to meet the needs of their areas.
We need to look at championing the development of new homes in small-scale housing developments in both rural and urban Wales on ‘exception sites’, where land plots, not covered by general planning permission, will be capped at an affordable price designed to benefit those in local housing need with family and work ties to the area, and whose sale will be conditional on these houses continuing in local ownership in perpetuity.
I have no problem with the scrapping of the Right to Buy scheme, its from another time, and is no longer fit for purpose. What’s left of our social housing stock needs to remain intact in order to meet the demand for homes. Along with developing social housing stock there is a need to introduce a more rigorous system in the allocation of social housing to give priority to those in local housing need.
Local democracy has been undermined, as developers (and here we are not just talking about housing) simply appear to carry on appealing until they get their way or get their development retrospectively approved at a higher level. Or the process of land acquisition literally begins before the proposal even goes to inquiry almost as if the decision has already been made.
Local government officers will (and do) advise local councillors not to turn down developments (whatever the grounds) because the developers will simply appeal until the cows come home and that local government just does not have the finances to cope with this situation.
Part of the problem is that our planning system, along with our almost nineteenth century local government setup is not designed to coexist with devolution or for that matter to deliver planning decisions with real and lasting benefits for local people and local communities. There is a real need for root and branch reform and reorganisation of our planning system; the Welsh Government’s simply decided to tinker and tweak with existing out-dated legislation rather than reform it.
Our current planning system remains far too focused on railroading through large housing developments that bring little benefits for local people and local communities and often fail to resolve real and pressing local housing needs. We need a fundamental change in planning culture to encourage appropriate and sustainable smaller scale housing developments, which are based on good design and actively promote energy efficiency and good environmental standards.
Our planning system and planning processes are too slow, too bureaucratic and too unresponsive to real local needs and local opinions. The current system is based on the post-war Town and Country Planning Act from 1947 and is simply out-dated; our country needs a modern planning system that meets the needs of modern Welsh society. In line with the realities of devolution our country needs an independent Planning inspectorate for Wales as the old single planning inspectorate for England and Wales is increasingly unsustainable.
What we badly need is a sensible properly planned housing strategy, not just for south Monmouthshire, the rest of the former county of Gwent and Cardiff, but also for the rest of our country. When it comes to large-scale housing developments, based on previous observations, we can pretty much predict what happens next.
If a planning inquiry come out against a proposed development then there will be another appeal to Cardiff – where I have little doubt that proposals will be rubber stamped by the Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff (while many things may have changed this mirrors pretty much exactly what went on when Wales was run by the old Welsh Office).
Westminster ministers during the heady days of the Con Dem coalition favoured changing the planning rules (in England) to boost house building to revive the economy. The Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff naturally favoured changing to planning rules in Wales to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’.
Ironically that sentiment was perhaps aimed specifically at overturning those few occasions of late when our Local Authorities have rejected some developments (often at the behest of concerned local residents) rather than simply putting economic needs ahead of economic, environmental benefits and community cohesion.
Over the medium to long term this is fundamentally bad news for those residents of south Monmouthshire, or residents of Torfaen, who have fought the plan and the good citizens of Abergavenny who fought to retain the livestock market. Not to mention the concerned residents of Carmarthen who have worries about the impact of over large housing developments or the residents of Holyhead who opposed a planned new marina development
We in Wales, need to think outside the box, and look seriously look at the release of public land as self-build plots for affordable homes, to buy and to lease, and allow housing associations to build their own high-quality prefabricated homes as the Accord Housing Association successfully does in Walsall. This would also break the link between housing companies making fact profits and local government approved over development in and around our communities.
Our communities have been consistently (and continue to be) ill served by the planning system, by our local authorities (via the flawed system of Unitary Development Plans) and more recently by the Labour in Wales Welsh Government in Cardiff. With increasing pressure from over development community cohesion is under threat, along with increased demand on overstretched local amenities, our NHS and our green spaces.
An opportunity to address the shortage of affordable housing, to encourage more small-scale renewable energy projects, and to actively support small businesses in relation to the Planning Bill has been missed. It is time to start the process of actually addressing the flawed LDP (Local Development Plan) system, which does not deliver for local communities and fails to serve our national interests.
Perhaps before constructing large numbers of new houses which often fail to tackle local housing needs we needs to take a long hard look at the number of empty properties something that remains largely unaddressed in many of our communities. We need a planning system that takes account of local housing needs, the environment (and seeks to create protected green belt land around and within our large and small urban communities).
We also need to holistically plan and act for the whole of Wales – something that is not happening effectively at present. All of these things are something we just won’t get without fair funding for Wales, a full range of powers to shape and move our economic leavers and to be honest will go no where fast without Labour significantly losing in the next set of National Assembly elections.