Lakes caught in housing turmoil: Malcolm Pithers reports on proposals to put further restrictions on home building

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A MIST swirls over Rydal Fell in the Lake District. Only a shepherd's yell interrupts the morning as he collects sheep.

It is easy to see why the Lakes attract, and suffer from, vast numbers of visitors and incomers. The constant pressure of people visiting or wanting to live in the Lake District is causing enormous problems for conservation and, strangely, for the economy.

Tourists bring in the finances to keep even the smallest business turning in a recession. Yet local people wanting to buy their own homes have to cope with spiralling prices brought about by houses being sold to people from outside the area. Neither do they have the option to buy new, low-cost houses. The incomers have always been prepared and able to pay higher prices for a second home or a retirement base.

Now there is a new controversy over changes being proposed in the housing system and tourism development in the Lake District which some people feel will make it even harder for residents to buy homes, particularly new ones. Builders, developers and organisations with interests in the district say the new restrictions will damage the local economy, push prices higher and will not solve housing needs.

The new joint structure plan for Cumbria and the Lake District national park is soon to be examined in public to allow objections to be heard. But if the plan put forward by the Lake District Special Planning Board is approved, no new housing development will be allowed within the national park unless stringent regulations are adhered to.

Crucially, special agreements will be needed to ensure that the occupancy of new dwellings and conversions is confined to local people. But no new housing will be allowed at all unless it lies within the boundary of a larger settlement or is well related to an existing village. The new plan also aims to introduce tougher restrictions on tourist projects. There will, in future, be 'a presumption against' major new proposals for holiday accommodation and for tourist attractions unrelated to the national park.

The national park body does have evidence of how the housing market in the Lake District has been affected by outsiders. A housing survey of developments in the park over the past 15 years has shown that 60.8 per cent of people who bought properties, either new or from the second-hand market, had retired and most were from outside the Lakes. Second homes made up 10.5 per cent of housing.

Brian Barden, who runs a private planning consultancy in Kendal, said that the Government had allowed authorities to develop land for low-cost housing as an exception to normal planning policy.

He said: 'The difference in the Lake District national park is that the planning authority is taking the view that it should not provide any housing in the park, other than specifically to meet local needs. That is where the difficulty is. It is also now becoming impossible to provide housing for locals.

'We are certain that there are entirely acceptable development sites within the settlements of the national park which could contribute to the overall housing provision within the area without undue detriment. We believe the board's policy on restricting housing is discriminatory and unlikely ever to redress the balance between local demand, demand from commuters, retired people or those with second homes.'

Jim Smith, managing director of Hassall Homes in Cockermouth, said: 'The problem for builders is the availability of land, or the lack of it. The shortage of land has pushed the prices up, meaning only people from outside can afford it. The affordability for locals has gone, due to the tight planning policy on land.' He believes that the only answer is to bring agricultural land into use.

To add to the problems, house prices at the lower end of the market in the Lakes have probably never been so low. But local people, who have either been renting or using various housing schemes, still do not have the means to step on to the property ladder.

(Photograph omitted)