A seismic change may be about to rock our national parks and other areas of outstanding natural beauty; and it is concealed within the technicalities of a proposal to grant landowners permitted development rights, without the need for planning permission. This would allow for up to three dwellings to replace or convert existing farm buildings.
If this addressed the desperate shortage of affordable housing in our national parks it would be worth considering. Sadly it is set to make a dire situation worse while destroying the landscape and a fragile rural economy.
The average house price within the Dartmoor national park is in excess of £270,000; nine times the median local income and over sixteen times incomes in the lowest quartile. The chance of finding affordable rented accommodation is also grim, and the situation is forcing out young people and families with serious consequences for rural communities.
An increase in housing supply will do nothing to reduce prices if it caters for an entirely different demand. The proposals would allow for new developments to be almost twice the guideline size for affordable housing. Rather than meeting a genuine need they would unleash a second and luxury homes bonanza, creating yet more ghost villages and hamlets inhabited only at weekends or in season.
The impact of a free-for-all will be huge – not only because developers are likely to prefer to convert remaining heritage outbuildings, but because of the chilling effect this prospect is already having on schemesto build homes for local people.
Since the reduction in capital grants, the best mechanism for creating affordable housing has been through granting planning permission on so-called exception sites. Where the landowner knows there is no possibility of selling to developers at open market housing rates, affordable housing is cross-subsidised by a small percentage of open market value properties.
But with the prospect of a free run at open market development with few strings attached, values are set to rise sharply and we will kiss goodbye to the only realistic opportunity for development land at prices that can deliver housing for local people.
Suburbanisation of our national parks might also deliver the final coup de grace to their fragile ecosystems, already under pressure from changing grazing patterns over recent decades. While cattle and sheep make way for pony paddocks in lower lying areas, loss of grazing livestock from the open moor will lead to a further degradation from heather to gorse. Who can blame them if hill farmers, asset rich and cash flow near zero, opt to fragment or sell their holdings and livestock. They have long struggled to maintain their way of life with scant recognition of their service to conserve this precious landscape on our behalf.
The planning minister, Nick Boles, has been bold in his effort to build more housing. He has walked towards the nimby gunfire on behalf of the people he believes should have the opportunity to own their own home. I hope he will look again at the unintended consequences of the proposed changes and place the need for affordable housing above pressure from developers.
When Lewis Silkin introduced the national parks and access to the countryside bill to parliament in 1949 he described it as a “people’s charter for the open air”. The open countryside of our national parks deserves our protection but also the living, breathing communities who conserve them for the future. We can build more homes for local people by supporting community land trusts and incentivising investment in genuinely affordable housing projects. The proposed measures, by further inflating land values, will kill off any hope for village housing initiatives and puts at risk some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.