Five reasons to say no to 9,000 homes plan

Lancaster’s MP Cat Smith, in her recent detailed article about the south Lancaster plan for 9,000 houses and a new road, lists many very reasonable conditions she would like to be fulfilled before she could support the project. She might recall that she wrote a letter of support for the HIF bid submission back in 2019.

Unfortunately, like the planners and highways officers who devised the scheme, she fails to mention the huge carbon impact of building a new road linking to the M6, never mind the resulting number of additional car journeys made on it in a time of climate crisis. But apart from that huge elephant in the room, below are some thoughts on other issues the Housing Infrastructure Funding and the associated plan creates.

1. We can’t extend the deadline for further consultation

Firstly, Cat Smith is rightly concerned that “there will be further, genuine consultation with residents in South Lancaster, particularly regarding the Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF) and its implications”.

But this call should have started long ago. The deadline for the decision is 31 August and government will not extend it despite our recent request. The Council has already had one deadline extension, as she must know. We have been repeatedly told we have run out of time to adjust this particular scheme.

2. This scheme will not prevent ‘uncontrolled development’

Secondly, she takes up the contention by Lancaster City Council planning officers that without this scheme we will have ‘uncontrolled development’ in the area because we have no five-year land supply, i.e. ‘the scheme meets the five-year housing land supply, so that local involvement isn’t eroded.’

The truth is that the HIF funding will not help us meet the five-year housing land supply for a number of years. Here is the view of a senior council officer this summer in response to my questions on this: “your general concerns regarding housing supply are well-founded. The pandemic certainly hit build out…and you are right that the supply of strategic sites is dwindling until more come forward for planning permission (part of the North Lancaster site is likely to be next, later this summer). That means that we are unlikely to be able to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply.”

In short, we will continue to have reduced powers over ‘uncontrolled development’ here and elsewhere because there is no five-year land supply and that is what determines our ability to control planning permissions. The HIF is not the magic bullet despite what some commentators think.

In fact, the numbers of expected housing from south Lancaster are indeed very low for the next 13 years — as expressed in the Local Plan, with just 1,205 realistically delivered: as the land must be ‘deliverable’ not just earmarked. See below.

Mechanisms for Delivery of Growth in South Lancaster (including Bailrigg Garden Village)

12.18  Policy SP6 of this DPD sets out the overall housing target and identifies a wide range of development sites which will be required to meet that Local Housing Need. The broad location for growth has identified opportunities to deliver in the region of 3,500 new homes, 1,205 of which the Council believes can be realistically delivered during the course of this plan period up to 2034, due to the strategic infrastructure required to facilitate growth

3. We have no guarantees we’ll get the affordable housing we urgently need

Thirdly, our MP picks up the matter of affordable housing, an absolute priority for the city council’s homes strategy and for Green Councillors. Designed for people earning low incomes, affordable housing is created when developers sell homes at a discount to housing associations so they are available for rent or shared ownership. Greens would like the same  assurances that our MP seeks;  that, “a substantial number of homes built are genuinely affordable, and there is a plan in place to ensure this is actually delivered”.

But there are no guarantees about this whatsoever.

Greenfield sites should contribute 30% affordable housing because developers can make their highest profits on such sites. Because of that required profitability, discounted homes are sold for Housing Associations to run and maintain as affordable. Developers often negotiate down the amount of affordable housing because they say that they will not make enough profit:  in their terms, affordable housing makes the developments ‘unviable’.

For the last 3 years these are dismal affordable housing figures that have been achieved in the district. And gives an idea of just how many new dwellings have been built in reality:

Net new total dwellings (excluding student units)

Affordable housing units as % of total (excluding student units)  Total dwellings on greenfield sites (including student units built on greenfield)
2018/19 262 21% 110
2019/20 282 15% 141
2020/21 206 8% 125

And there is every reason why this struggle will continue in south Lancaster: taking a “roof tax” or developer contribution to pay for the highways works doubles the usual s106 payments (which generally contribute to local play spaces, community facilities, schools and GP surgeries) and this will be a genuine reason for developments being “unviable.”

The best way to find out whether developers are going to be able to reduce or remove the affordable housing is to have our own council viability study.  This has not been produced, despite our calls.

What we need to do is focus all our officers’ time on delivering the Canal Quarter and  the realistic plans for affordable housing within it.

So on behalf of the Greens, I have to say to our MP that there is no plan in place to ensure affordable housing is delivered. And the requirement to pay the “roof tax” significantly reduces the chance of affordable housing being available.

4. We are in the middle of a climate crisis, and this will not be a low-carbon development

Cat’s fourth call comes close to recognising the climate crisis and reveals some real problems with the HIF project: “the homes built are as sustainable as possible, ideally net-zero carbon, adhering to the boldest environmental and climate regulations,

There is much focus on making homes themselves as low-carbon and sustainable as possible.  This is in line with the new Local Plan review which requires developers to build to the highest energy efficiency standards. Unfortunately, the council’s consultants’ initial report in the spring raised questions over the viability of genuinely low-carbon emission housing on strategic greenfield sites.’

Once new build dwellings are raised to the high standards we require, build costs rise and the houses become less viable. This in turn reduces further the chances of affordable housing but also means developers will be contributing less to community facilities through s106 contributions.

One other call: that “air quality in Galgate is improved by diverting traffic away from the village, as has long been demanded,” 

Yes, we would agree that if we build the road, there will be less traffic through Galgate for a few years.  However, research into road-building shows that if you reduce congestion and make journeys easier, more vehicle journeys are made. The traffic comes back as induced traffic and with a local new population of 30,000 people this is likely to be serious, despite some funding for cycling and bus infrastructure — the details of which remain very vague indeed. So in effect we will have spent over £100 million on the reconfiguration of Junction 33 and a new slip road for a few years’ respite from traffic whilst hugely increasing the risk to Galgate from flooding due to the run off from the new road. This is not a scheme fit for the 21st century, especially given the climate emergency.

5. The financial risks are enormous

There are huge financial risks too, many of these are only evident in the confidential and supposedly commercially sensitive information that only councillors, and not the public, are allowed to see. But I think the above clearly indicates that this particular HIF plan does not fulfil our Labour MP’s own criteria for support, and it is to be hoped that Labour councillors do not vote for it on this Wednesday.