Cambridgeshire County Council Plans To Build Homes

new_homes07:08 Tuesday 28th January 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[P]AUL STAINTON: They’ve got the land. They need to make money to balance the books. So should Cambridgeshire County Council set up its own property development company? It’s an idea that will be discussed by councillors today, and the Council say it would generate income, at the same time as helping meet the urgent need for new homes. Well let’s hear now from Ashley Walsh, who’s the Labour Party’s spokesperson for Resources on Cambridgeshire County Council. Morning Ashley. Good idea or bad idea?
ASHLEY WALSH: I think it’s a good idea. I have families in my division in Cambridge who can’t afford to live and help their children live in the city they grew up in. There’s a massive housing crisis in Cambridge, and we need to build social housing. You said earlier that why did we ever stop building social housing. Well I’m glad to see the County Council and Tories on the County Council accepting the need to build more social housing.
PAUL STAINTON: Why did we stop building social housing? I grew up in a council house, pit houses in Yorkshire. That was de rigeur. Remind us why we stopped.

ASHLEY WALSH: Well I grew up in a council house in Yorkshire as well, and we provided the right to buy. It seems the Government thought that that would be enough for families to be able to get on the housing ladder. We allowed the right to buy, but didn’t build more council houses, and I think it was a mistake, and I think most governments would say it was a mistake. And we’re seeing the consequences now. There’s a massive housing crisis in Cambridge.
PAUL STAINTON: Councillor John Hipkin, Independent councillor on both County and City Councils is with us as well. John, morning.
JOHN HIPKIN: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it long overdue, looking at doing this?
JOHN HIPKIN: Do you mean the County becoming a house developer.
JOHN HIPKIN: Long overdue? I don’t know about that. But I agree with Ashley. I think it’s a good thing that the County Council has become a developer, or wants to become a developer, because we need to earn money, as well as simply talk about making cuts.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Is there any risk involved here though? That will be what people will be ..
JOHN HIPKIN: Well I think the County will have to remember that developing huge projects of this kind is not an easy matter. I hope they’re going to appoint people to carry this project through who’ve got an intimate knowledge of housing development, because yes, things can go badly wrong, and we don’t want a repetition of the Guided Bus fiasco, or anything of that sort. So yes. I’m hoping very much that they will get in the kind of people who know housing development well, and will ensure that this turns out to be a prosperous investment.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. It won’t really be Ashley council houses as we remember them though, will it? Because the money won’t be coming from the Government. It will be having to come from private enterprise?
ASHLEY WALSH: That’s right. Yes. The investment will come from private enterprise.
PAUL STAINTON: Are you happy with that, being a Labour man?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well my preference would be if the Government provided it, but I think in the current context I’d be very shocked if national government were willing to put forward the money for that kind of thing. John’s quite right. The Council will have had its budget go down by 40% by the end of this Government, and we need to find ways of generating revenue to provide essential services.
JOHN HIPKIN: Can I just point out that when we talk about private investment, I think what will happen on that site is that 60% of the housing will be so-called market housing. Houses will be sold at the going market rate, and given that Cambridge house prices are among the highest in the country, there’s going to be a huge huge return from the 60% market housing, but 40% will be so-called affordable housing.
PAUL STAINTON: What does that mean? people bandy that about that phrase. Affordable to whom?
JOHN HIPKIN: Well affordable housing means that the housing will be under the control of a registered social landlord, and that the people on the housing waiting list, those who urgently need accommodation, will have the first opportunity of occupying those new homes.
PAUL STAINTON: So the cost will be within the reach of most people.
JOHN HIPKIN: It will be .. well you know that’s the whole idea of affordable housing, that there’s an artificial if you like subsidy of the housing, to allow people on middle and lower incomes to actually get an opportunity to rent one of the homes. And that’s I think what will be happening. Now to have 40% on a major site like this brought forward as affordable homes is no mean achievement. I think we should celebrate that.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. The sites we’re talking about here, the first pockets of land the Council aim to build on are on Newmarket Road in Burwell and Worts’ Causeway in Cambridge. Now the Worts’ Causeway plot in particular could be contentious, because of course until this point it’s been part of the Green Belt. Is building on the Green Belt something the County Council really wants to be part of, Ashley?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well the Worts’ Causeway site has already been accepted in the Local Plan as a site of possible development.
PAUL STAINTON: You’re humming and hahing John?
JOHN HIPKIN: Well Ashley’s not quite right. The Local Plan hasn’t yet been finally ratified.
ASHLEY WALSH: Yes, that’s quite right. Yes.
JOHN HIPKIN: That’s still to come. But he is right that the chances are that it will be ratified.
PAUL STAINTON: Right. Do we have to get used to this then? Do we have to get used to the fact that we might have to build more and more on Green Belt land, just to satisfy people’s thirst for houses?
JOHN HIPKIN: Well the Local Plan, the Cambridge Local Plan, which will be adopted I guess in a few days time, is the plan until 2031. So you could say that this minor incursion into the Green Belt will be the last that we shall see for something like 20 years. But what happens beyond then, when the pressure really has almost become irrestistible, is anybody’s guess.
PAUL STAINTON: Well it sets a precedent, doesn’t it?
JOHN HIPKIN: Well no. There have been other precedents. The massive University development on my side of the city, the so-called University farm development with 3,000 homes and so on, that was taken out of the Green Belt very deliberately to allow the University to build homes and research stations and so on on that part of the city. So it’s not .. it is not without precedent that the Green Belt has been invaded.
PAUL STAINTON: There’s another possible problem here, isn’t it. The district councils are the ones who approve or reject planning applications, but they also need new houses. Well if the County Council goes to a district council asking to build 200 new homes, the district council’s hardly going to say no, are they? Don’t you risk accusations really of councils being too close to one another, and patting each other on the back Ashley?
ASHLEY WALSH: Well I’d be very shocked if Cambridge City Council turned down such an opportunity like this, particularly if the Labour Party on Cambridge City Council wants to get as many affordable homes and social ones built as possible. So they have every right to deny the application if they so wish, and that’s completely open to public scrutiny. But I think just to complete the point that John made, we have to balance two competing objectives here. One is to preserve Cambridge’s beautiful green spaces around it, but also remember that the city boundaries are so tight, and the housing crisis is so severe, that we have to try and strike that balance. And I hope that as the proposals go forward, the public will stay in consultation with the County Council to make sure that we get that balance right between green space and providing decent affordable housing.
PAUL STAINTON: John, how far off are we from getting this idea up and running?
JOHN HIPKIN: Oh I think that the County will first of all get .. I imagine that Cabinet will today authorise this process, and that the County will want to get on with it. And the cash crisis at the County is so severe that we can’t afford to hang around. So yes, once the decision has been made that we’re going to go ahead as a developer, I think it will be full steam ahead. That’s what I’m hoping for. So let’s .. I would think there would be an application for that major development some time later this year.
PAUL STAINTON: And will more and more councils be doing this in the future?
JOHN HIPKIN: They will have to. We simply cannot tolerate a situation in which councils are cutting cutting cutting services. Councils have got to become businesses. They’ve got to become far more entrepreneurial. They’ve got to think of ways of using their assets to the greatest benefit of their citizens, and I think the County is showing the way. It’s a bold initiative, and I hope it is one that is taken up elsewhere. I heard a story a few days ago of a school that was having to do discos and things of that sort because their budgets are so tight. Look, we live in an age of austerity, and the times when we could all sit back and just go on spending money on public services irrespective are over. We’ve now got to think of ways of generating the income in order to avoid cutting the services.