To build or not to build? That is the question at the heart of a battle playing out across Britain, as an acute housing shortage rubs up against a deep-seated desire to protect green and pleasant land.
One group, known as the Nimbys (Not-In-My-Back-Yard), oppose developments of any kind in their area for the sake of preserving heritage, the countryside and the status quo.
They say the lack of clearly defined planning guidelines has created loopholes for developers to exploit national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) so much so that the number of homes built on protected areas more than doubled between 2017 and 2021, and continues to rise.
But in some areas residents are crying out for development.
In South Milton, Devon, residents have voted for more housing in their area of natural beauty, albeit on a small scale.
The village, set in a leafy valley, is home to 34 grade-II listed buildings, a grade-I listed 12th century church and around half the village is designated a conservation area of special architectural or historic interest.
A ten-minute drive down the road is South Milton Sands, a long sweep of golden beach and rock pools with clear blue waters that attracts 80,000 visitors a year.
In 2019, the parish published its 15-year “neighbourhood plan”, a document laying the groundwork for an 18-home development on the edge of the village which sits in one of England’s 33 areas protected for their natural beauty and environmental significance.
The location for the proposed housing development – the “Dairy Site” – is part of a farm on the edge of the village not in the conservation area.
Nick Townsend, vice chairman of South Milton Parish Council, believes the new homes will not detract from the village’s charms.
He says: “The location within the AONB is about as good as you could get as it’s tucked away and not visible, except very locally. An old barn is occupying the site at the moment.
“We were told it was going to become redundant. We are effectively building on a site that is already developed.”
Neighbourhood plans were introduced under the 2011 Localism Act, part of David Cameron’s “big society” push to give power back to local people.
South Milton’s neighbourhood plan stipulates that six of the proposed houses will be “affordable”, six will be self-builds, and six will be available on the open market.
The plan, which requires any developer to provide a carpark for the village hall and land for a playground, won overwhelming support from the village’s roughly 400 inhabitants.
Graham Collyer, a resident who was closely involved in drafting the plan and the author of A History of South Milton, says allowing more houses to be built will help the life-blood of the village.
He says: “We have a big, vibrant South Milton-born group of kids up to the age of about 10 or 11, and then a big gap, as many of us are of an age. People thought it would be good to get some younger adults in.”
He adds that it is “very, very unfair” that young people can’t get on to the housing ladder.
“The problem with this country is that it’s vast but so much of it is protected by various AONBs and the like, and quite rightly so.
“But my view is there’s got to be some give and take, otherwise people’s children will be driven out.
“Two of my three children have never been able to buy a property, partly because they can’t find anywhere to live.
“It’s very difficult to find housing sites in the district. Last summer, in the whole of South Hams, there were only eight houses available for long-term rent. It’s a nightmare.”
The planning authority had initially floated a target to build 39 new homes in the parish over the 15-year period.
However, Mr Townsend says that the small size of the community meant that number was “ridiculous”.
“We tried to put boundaries on what we thought was acceptable,” he says.
He adds: “In the questionnaire we sent out [to residents], people said they wanted more affordable housing for locals.”
The plan also gives South Milton’s residents control over who will live in the homes once they are built. 21pc of houses in the village are second homes, but the Dairy Site development will be subject to the “St Ives clause” which stipulates that the homes will be for people who live and work in the area.
Mr Townsend says: “You look at [nearby] Salcombe where 70pc are second homes, and it’s dead. There’s nowhere for local people to live, no one left to work. Second homes bring business to the area, but you need the right balance.
“That’s why local communities like us are having to try to change our policies and manage this.”
While development is still at the pre-planning stage, Andy Bond, who owns the site, expects building to begin within a year or two.
He says: “We’re just ordinary people who want to do what’s best for the community.
“Everyone accepts we need more houses. The only people I’ve come across who object to more houses have nice houses themselves.”
But the parishioners of South Milton occupy a middle-ground in the nation’s often ill-tempered housing debate.
On one extreme are the Nimbys. Those who partake in Nimby-ism see themselves as a thin line of defence against greedy developers paving over countryside for profit. Critics accuse them of small-minded localism. In any case, they often shout the loudest.
The Yimbys (Yes-In-My Back-Yard), however, are pro-housing activists pushing to have more homes built where they are most needed – on their own doorsteps and elsewhere.
Many of them are young and fed up. Home ownership for 25 to 34-year-olds in Britain has fallen from 67pc in 1991 to 41pc today, according to ONS data, meaning today’s young people are less likely to be homeowners than any generation since the 1930s.
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‘It’s about the problems the shortage of housing causes’
Despite the UK population having risen by almost 10 million since 2000, there were just 1.3 million homes built in the 2010s, down from 3.6 million in the 1960s.
Squeezed housing stock has helped drive a steep rise in house prices, up 400pc in inflation-adjusted terms since 1970, compared with 180pc in France and 40pc in Germany.
John Myers, co-founder of the Yimby Alliance, believes the housing debate goes beyond who gets a home and who doesn’t.
He says: “It’s about all of the problems the shortage of housing causes – ill-health, long commuting times, stress, lack of sleep, family break-ups, people not able to take the job or training they want because they’re not able to live near it, the reduction in average wages that causes, and the reduction in taxes the Government gets as a result to spend on things like healthcare.”
The green belt concept emerged after the First World War, driven by a recognition that buffer zones of countryside encircling cities were needed to prevent urban sprawl.
Yet pro-housing advocates have long argued that the green belt is a triumph of branding, conjuring up images of rolling, verdant hills, while the reality is more often arable monoculture or bleak industrial sites.
Yimbys point out that despite the Nimby camp’s invocation to protect the green belt from rapacious developers, it has more than doubled in size in the last 40 years. The green belt now makes up 12.6pc of England’s land compared with 6pc for all residential buildings and their gardens.
The openness to more house-building in South Milton – a community that might have traditionally opposed it – hints at a wider shift in public sentiment on the issue.
Polling from the Land, Planning and Development Federation shows that 69pc of voters are concerned about the availability of housing in Britain, with homeowners and non-owners equally worried about how few homes are being built.
Hoping to capitalise on this anxiety is Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who outed himself as a Yimby last month. Labour is promising to ensure developers can overcome local planning objections to get more houses built if the party comes into power.
It is part of a wider Labour pledge to hit the Conservatives’ 300,000-home-a-year target, which they have repeatedly failed to meet.
Labour’s plans include building a generation of “Labour new towns”, which would involve developing what Starmer calls the “grey belt” – areas of disused land within the green belt that include wasteland and unused car parks.
Mr Myers is cautiously optimistic about Labour’s embrace of Yimby-ism. Mr Starmer’s grey belt distinction, he says, is “very clever, although it remains to be seen how much of this grey belt is in areas where people need or want housing.”
He adds: “The real places with acute housing shortages are places like York, London, Cambridge and Reading, and I’m not sure there are vast amounts of abandoned quarries, or former factories or former airfields designated as green belt in those areas, especially not near stations.
“It’s good to move the debate on and nuance things like that, but the devil will be in the detail.”
Even so, he is all too aware of the power the green belt retains in the public imagination.
“The question is what you can get past voters and through Parliament,” he says. “Even Mrs Thatcher blinked when she tried to attack the green belt. What history shows us is that if you want reform you have to do it in a sustainable way.
“We Yimbys are pushing for sustainable reforms that can get a broad consensus. If you want to get real change at scale through Parliament that’s going to stick.
“Two thirds of voters in this country are homeowners, and they’re very sensitive about the places where they live.”
‘It impacts already overstretched services in villages’
Elizabeth Bundred Woodward, of CPRE, says that Mr Starmer’s grey belt idea “contradicts” the main aim of green belt policy which is to prevent sprawl.
“Green belt doesn’t have to be pretty or useful, it’s about containing urban development within its boundaries. It encourages urban regeneration and mixed-use development.
“We don’t think we need to be building on the greenbelt wholesale. There are adequate sites that can be redeveloped for housing in brownfield sites, and lots of homes that have received planning permission that have not been built yet – around half a million – so this is the place to start.”
Ms Bundred Wood warns the damage done by these housing developments extends beyond blighting views.
She says: “It impacts the landscape and local ecology, but also crucially on already overstretched services in villages, and they tend to not be close to public transport.
“We need our countryside for renewable energy and food security. We’re also one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. One in six species is in danger of extinction.”
Since neighbourhood plans were first introduced, 1,190 communities have adopted them, according to the local community network Locality.
It allows areas to build more affordable housing while retaining some control over development – as is the case in South Milton.
However, Mr Myers says that in practice, neighbourhood plans aren’t as useful as they could be.
He says: “There’s an enormous burden of building an evidence base and sets of requirements around the way they are set up, enormous procedural hurdles.
Anna Clarke, of The Housing Forum, suggests that the reason neighbourhood plans haven’t worked as well as they might is that the levels of consensus present in South Milton are rare.
“Trying to build community consensus around housing will always get stuck because some people don’t want it.”
She adds that localism can only go so far and the solution to the housing crisis will involve more strategic planning on a national level.
“The drawbacks to devolving housing policy to local level is that housing is needed nationally and people in the local area are by definition already housed and they tend to oppose new housing.
“There are different solutions needed on different levels. For small numbers of rural housing, to get a few more coming on, neighbourhood plans have a real role. But there’s also a role for national level leadership as well as targets.
“What’s missing at the moment is national and sub-regional strategic planning that takes an overarching look at whether we should build new towns or developments in any one particular area, rather than ‘let’s share the pain equally’ which is the approach with the current targets.”
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