Monday, September 25, 2006

More on affordable housing

Huge thanks to the leader of South Shropshire DC whose left a comment for me; it's great to get informed debate going! I've added a comment in response which I'll elaborate on here.

She made a very valid point about people working in rural areas, which I had assumed from my experience living in a rural area to be pretty much negligible. Most of the affordable housing debate in my area has been local people who want to live near their families (in some cases for ease of child care) but who mostly work outside the area. This means they do at least a 7 mile commute to the station each day and possibly up to a 17 mile commute to a nearby urban area. Pollution-aside, the urban area could do with more young families, etc. choosing to live there to revitalise it and stop it being a 'no-go' area at night when everyone goes home from work. This was one of the reasons I objected to the 'localness' clause for affordable rural housing - 'local' does not necessarily mean 'works there'.

Understandably, I was particularly concerned about the combination of this type of policy with our just-passed policy on rural communities. This includes the line:

Recognition that cars are often necessary in sparsely populated areas by granting a VED discount for those who most need it and examining the viability of EU derogation to permit lower excise duty on fuel in such areas.

In a predominantly service-based economy in which around 1.8 % of the population of England work in primary industry (e.g. fishing, forestry, etc.) but where 15 % of the population live in rural areas then the remaining 13 % of people (well, fewer if you include carers, etc.) are living an environmentally prolifigate lifestyle that is more expensive to service due to low population concentration and transport costs. If you read State of the Countryside 2005, urban to rural migration is a major issue. This is due to lifestyle issues NOT work. If the Lib Dems are going to be proscriptive at all about UK housing in the future then we want people crowded into several major cities in high density housing, living close to both services and their work with few people living in the countryside (ideally also at medium-high density). This may not apply to South Shropshire (like any good Liberal I understand that one size doesn't fit all), but we need to be careful when talking about 'rural communities' because we are subsidising the right of urban dwellers to play Marie Antoinette without paying the full cost of this lifestyle choice. It's worth mentioning that the farm workers in my area tend not to own cars and cycle from small towns to work.

The second reason I objected to the localness clause was that there is no assumption in urban areas that family living in, say, Belgravia entitles other family members to a right of residency. This is because urban areas are assumed to be vibrant, living areas. I fear the reference to 'localness' rather than purely to 'work' suggests a worldview in which rural areas are museum pieces in which people reenact age-old traditions, blah, blah.

I obviously don't understand the exact circumstances but am concerned why when there is an obvious demand for houses for poorer rural workers, private firms are not fulfilling this need since second home owners and rural workers should have different housing needs. This may be due to a lack of family homes (which would appeal to second home owners) or maybe because of planning objections to more appropriate styles of housing since they may change the 'character' of an area (this often applies to higher density housing which is the only form of housing that generates the same return per hectare of land as a large detached). In some areas, using traditional building materials pushes house prices up even without housing demand from outside. Controversial, but this is something I don't have much sympathy for since the people who are often objecting to the building of these types of properties are incomers; local residents are more likely to be in favour since it is their children and families who are unable to afford existing properties that are in keeping with the surrounding area. Rural areas are real, functioning places - they are not there for the benefit of urban dwellers who've watched too many re-runs of Midsomer Murders. With a few exceptions (Battersea Power Station, very high towers), there are far fewer worries about 'traditional lifestyles', 'preservation' or 'character' in urban areas. I think the idea that rural areas need to be 'preserved' like museum pieces is bizarre and something that a progressive party shouldn't be pandering too.

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