We need to talk about Devon

We need to talk about Devon

We think of the typical Devon house as a picturesque thatched cottage, but as building continues relentlessly around our towns and villages, it’s more likely to be a semi on a new estate.

But do we need all the new houses which are springing up? 

If you ask this question – as the Devon branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England does in a new report – you instantly come up against the one belief that unites our two main political parties: that a huge housebuilding programme should be a national priority. 

We are told that there is a major housing shortage; nationally, we need up to 300,000 new units per year to solve it. In Devon the population is growing and our housing stock certainly needs to keep pace. Yet what if the rate of development which is being forced by the Government is too fast? What if we are being obliged to build many more units than we really need? 

These are the radical questions which the CPRE Devon report poses for planners across the county, and they’re questions we should all engage with. You might of course think that the Campaign is taking a ‘Nimby’ attitude and setting aside the genuine needs of Devon’s young people and working families. But this would be to badly misjudge them; one of their key arguments is that while more and more homes go up, developers simply aren’t providing the low-cost, genuinely affordable housing that local people really need. 

Their report, ‘Devon Housing Needs Evidence 2018’, is based on serious research. It carefully examines the numbers of new households which are being formed and people moving into the county. When all this is taken into account, it seems we’re already building more houses than we need – and the targets our planning bodies have been obliged to adopt will push us even further over the top. The truth is that, far from having an overall shortage, we have more empty houses than before and second homes that are empty much of the year, while we don’t have enough social housing. The real housing problem is one of distribution, not scale.

Our councils really don’t have enough control over how much housing is built and where. Fail to propose enough sites to deliver the Government’s top-down targets, and the inspector will not approve your local plan. Fail to get your plan approved, or fall behind with your targets, and it will be open season for developers – planners won’t be able to insist on applying normal planning rules in line with local considerations which matter to residents. Don’t approve a big enough estate, and you won’t get funding for that new ring road. Approve a sensible development on a brown 

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