Just a few days after Cheshire West and Chester Council threw out the student village scheme, government planning minister Nick Boles came to the city to express the hope that ‘a hell of a lot of houses’ will be built here - including on green belt land.
“Sombody earning an average wage hasn’t got a hope in hell of being able to afford an average house.”
That’s what planning minister Nick Boles MP told an audience at the University of Chester’s Riverside campus which included campaigners for and against the Chester student village plus objectors to wind turbines in Little Neston and Redrow’s plan for 2,000 homes in Little Sutton.
Mr Boles, a guest of Chester Tory MP Stephen Mosley, said areas experiencing “a huge gap” in wages versus the cost of housing should plan for more homes rather than fewer to bring down the price.
He said: “One of the things that tells us we have a proper housing crisis on our hands is that there are lots and lots of parts of the country – I don’t know whether it’s true of Chester – where somebody earning an average wage hasn’t got a hope in hell of being able to afford an average house.”
And he plugged the government’s Help to Buy scheme which he hopes will lead to ‘a hell of a lot of houses being built’ because it allows buyers to take out a 95% mortgage thanks to the government insuring part of the loan.
Explaining the current log-jam, he explained: “If nobody can come up with the 20% deposit then I promise you, no houses will be built. It doesn’t matter how much planning permission you grant.”
Until recently Cheshire West and Chester Council did not have the five years’ housing supply required by law, making the local development plan null and void, creating a free-for-all for predatory developers.
Now the council has identified more than five years’ supply and is working on its new local plan to wrest back control, which Mr Boles said was essential.
“The most important thing is to get that local plan in place. And I know it’s difficult for everybody but I really think that anything that everybody can do to help make that happen is for the better.”
The government has a pro-development stance, and Mr Boles didn’t hide from the fact it would be necessary to allow some development on green field sites because ‘we can’t actually meet our housing need entirely on brownfield sites’. However, he stressed that the green belt land was safe in Tory hands.
“The protection it now has in the National Planning Policy Framework, which is the much reduced bible of planning policy, that protection is stronger than it’s had in any previous statutory framework but it’s not absolute and it’s never been absolute. It’s always been the case that some development has been possible within the green belt.”
Mr Mosley pointed out CWaC’s draft local plan includes a proposal to remove an area of land from the green belt off Wrexham Road south of Chester.
And Mr Boles said it was possible to remove green belt land outside the local plan process if ‘very special circumstances’ could be proved, which happened in the case of Chester Zoo’s expansion plans.
Bob Tomlinson, a parish councillor from Great Barrow, argued the case for some relaxation of green belt rules in the case of his own village which is designated as ‘washed over green belt’ making future growth almost impossible.
He said: “There’s a saying in Barrow at the moment: if you want to move up, you move out. People with aspirations in life, forget it!
“The local pub has closed, the local shop’s closed. In ten years’ time I think the school is going to be in difficulty. We’ve got brownfield sites, we’ve got infill sites, we’ve had planning applications come through which have been supported by the local community and they’ve hit the buffers. To my mind that is totally nonsense and it’s killing us.
“It’s develop or die.”
CWaC’s draft local plan includes a proposal to build 22,000 homes in West Cheshire over the next 20 years which Tory rebel Cllr Brian Crowe recently dubbed as ‘an aspiration for growth’ and not evidence-based.
Mr Boles was clear.
“The politics, in any direction, of aspiration and growth or of restraint and protection of land, that should come in the later phase of what are we going to do, not in the up-front phase of what is the objective evidence telling us?” explained the minister, who said an inspector would test the robustness of the evidence at a public enquiry.