Why build new homes here when there are loads of empty ones here?
If the planning minister gets his way, the village of Menston could soon be a lot bigger. But is this the best way to solve the local housing problem?
When new planning minister Nick Boles evoked the moral right of every British family to own a home with a small garden this week, he could scarcely have imagined a more desirable place to build those dream dwellings than Menston.
Perched half way up a green hill overlooking the Wharfe Valley, this former farming settlement offers the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales with the convenience of a brief commute to Leeds and Bradford.
A few shops, pubs, a train station and a vibrant community – it is a very nice place to live. But these attractions are proving as much a blessing as a curse to the 5,200 souls of this rapidly expanding village.
It is a message that will be impressed upon Mr Boles, a close ally of David Cameron and former head of the Policy Exchange think-tank, when he comes to meet the people of Menston next year and – they hope – explain his ideas to increase the amount of development land available in England from nine to 12 per cent.
While it might seem like a small number, argue critics such as the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, three per cent of England is an area roughly the size of Cornwall. It would means a lot more places like Menston could find themselves in the path of the developers’ bulldozers.
“If we wanted to live in a city, we would have chosen to live in a city,” explained Alan Elsegood, 67, a retired personnel consultant and chairman of the Menston Community Association as he admires the view from his back window. “I have worked and I have paid for that. We don’t want it turning into Stevenage,” he adds.
Three hundred out of 600 new homes have already been built on the site of a former hospital on the outskirts of Menston, while a fierce community battle is raging against 309 houses on two local fields at Derry Hill and off Bingley Road which were previously green belt.
Under Bradford Council’s local development framework, 600 more houses are scheduled to be finished by 2028.
Nearly all will be three- or four-bedroom houses with double car parking capacity, it is claimed.
This will see the village expand by 40 per cent or 3,000 people, spiralling demand for schools, shops and amenities.
Menston Action Group, whose green and yellow protest signs festoon the front gardens of the village, has argued that 13,000 homes already have planning permission elsewhere in Bradford, while 270 derelict sites await regeneration in the city and its environs.
“It will destroy the spirit of the community because the people who come in will not find jobs here because there aren’t any. Everyone who comes will have to be a commuter. Their children will also be commuters because of the lack of schools. We’ll become a dormitory,” said Mr Elsegood.
Inspired by Mr Boles’ predecessor at planning, the recently promoted Greg Clark, the people of Menston last year held a referendum opposing the projects at Derry Hill and Bingley Road.
Ninety eight per cent voted against the schemes and a further 2,000 letters of objection were submitted as “amplification” of their opposition. In February, Bradford Council, which had originally opposed the switch from green belt, ignored the result and approved the schemes, albeit reluctantly.
Photographer John Houlihan, 48, said locals, who have raised £60,000 for their campaign, were not guilty of Nimbyism but genuinely concerned about issues such as congestion, schools and flooding. “The campaign has galvanized the community but there is a great sense of injustice at the way that it has been handled,” he said.
In his BBC Newsnight interview this week, Mr Boles – who previously enraged countryside campaigners by labelling them “scaremongering Luddites” – insisted that all 1.6m hectares of England’s green belt remained sacrosanct.
However, he said “more beautiful” design might help persuade those that oppose new homes in their midst of their virtue and lashed out at lazy developers for creating “ugly rubbish”.
House builders, however, privately accept that many will never be convinced of the need to build near their properties.
And while alarmed at the minister’s aesthetic criticisms, they welcome any efforts to increase the supply of land which could help them build the 230,000 new homes a year they say are necessary to meet household growth. At present they are building only 110,000 a year.
Despite the Government’s efforts to simplify the planning system and devolve power, builders believe there is still too much regulation.
Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, said building needed to be made easier still. “House builders have to work extremely hard to wade through the treacle that is planning and regulation to produce new homes that are affordable for purchasers. We do so against a backdrop of increasing regulatory costs and direct financial levying of house building sites to pay for a wide range of local amenities that previously would have been paid for out of general taxation,” he said.
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