I was very disappointed that Stradbroke Parish Council approved the 54-house Grove Farm development last night, disappointed for a range of reasons, the most weighty of which is that the councillors who voted for the development appear to have gone against the publicly-expressed views of the majority of the populace. What that says about local governance and government (and its national equivalents) is a debate for another day, I guess. But it does suggest that we may be deluding ourselves when we claim to live in a genuine democracy.
When I listened to the recording of the discussion on the Grove Farm development this morning, the thing that struck me most was the intensity and honesty with which Olly Cole and George Chaplin spoke about the need for affordable housing in Stradbroke, the heartfelt desperation that came from their voices because, like in so many things, it's the youth of this country (read village) that's been most betrayed over the last five years, what with housing becoming unaffordable and youth employment at its highest since the days of Thatcher.
The thing that worries me, though, really worries me, is that the future of affordable housing itself is increasingly uncertain and at risk. According to documents published in March, and reinforced by articles in today's press, and the launch of the Tory manifesto, it looks like housing associations may be on their last legs due to the withdrawal of government funding and the resurrection of the ill-advised right-to-buy, increasing the likelihood that many houses given affordable status (be they rented or bought) may end up in the hands of private landlords with no imperative (or motivation) to keep rents low.
Now, the plans for Grove Farm in specific say that 27 of the 54 planned houses will be affordable (social rented housing, the application form states). What came across in the recording of the Parish Council meeting was that no-one actually knows how many of those 27 houses will be sold affordably (at 80% of market value being the definition), and how many of them will actually be rented out (at 80% of market rent being the definition). It will, in the end, apparently, be something that the housing association (in this case Hastoe) has to negotiate with Mid-Suffolk District Council (if the development goes ahead).
But what will happen if Hastoe decides not to take on those 27 houses because it no longer (due to government cuts) has the funds to do so, if it can't get the loans against the security of its current stock of housing and rents in advance to buy those houses? Then what? It's a serious question. Will those affordable houses, which I believe have swayed the minds of many of those on the Council to disregard public opinion, become just another block of houses unaffordable to local youngsters, destined to become second homes for people living elsewhere? Think about it.
By the way, those definitions of affordable appear to me to be far from affordable, even if they are very well insulated and energy-efficient. Market-driven house values have been driven up and up, and if the average cost of a house in Stradbroke is £260,000 (Zoopla search today), 80% of that is £208,000. Is that an affordable price? If average rental cost in Stradbroke is £635 per month (Zoopla search today), 80% of that is £508 per month. Is that indeed also affordable? And if it is affordable, is it worth creating chaos and possible carnage on the main road out of Stradbroke for?
I don't think anyone in the village is opposed to development of the Grove Farm site. But it needs to be one that is commensurate with local needs (a recent survey said Stradbroke needed 12 affordable houses), local infrastructure, and local wishes. There are profits to be made for developers in smaller developments (24 houses on this site would be acceptable to most, I think), notwithstanding my comments above about the state of the affordable housing sector.
My sympathies lie with Olly and George and the people they represent. They are the people we need to try to keep in the village to keep it young, and make it more aspirational and thriving. Unfortunately, I think developing the Grove Farm site as proposed would have exactly the opposite effect.
Mid Suffolk District Council will have the final say on the approval of this development. You have until 21st April to submit your comments (of obection or support) to Mid Suffolk Planning Department. Please do so.
Promoted by Richard Pierce-Saunderson of Spring Cottage, Church Street, Stradbroke, Suffolk, IP21 5HT.