How many homes do we need in Northumberland?
That question is the crux of the debate over how the county develops in the coming years and decades, but there seem to be no easy answers and certainly no agreement.
It’s clear that in a rural, sparse county which attracts visitors specifically for its impressive open spaces and beautiful coastline that we don’t want to build everywhere and destroy what makes Northumberland so special.
At the same time, we need to supply enough homes to meet demand – and the lower the demand, the more affordable they are, in theory – but also build enough houses to enable a county with an ageing population to grow and thrive.
Northumberland County Council is responsible for setting targets – but not maximums – for house-building through its local plan, the latest version of which has recently been out for its first public consultation, while neighbourhood plans also have a role to play.
The local authority has gone back to the drawing board with its framework after the new Conservative administration decided to withdraw the previous core strategy last summer.
A key reason for this was a claim that the housing numbers were too high as they were not based on the most up-to-date information.
The new draft document calls for 17,700 homes county-wide, or 885 a year, from 2016 to 2036, down from 24,000 in Labour’s strategy, although this did cover a different period – 2011 to 2031.
As with any local plan, the figure is the required number of homes the county needs to be sustainable and have a level of economic growth, it is not a limit.
But residents will feel that the plan is meaningless if the number of new homes actually built bears no resemblance at all to figures in the plan.
As previously reported, while the new Local Plan calls for 17,700 new homes over 20 years, there are already more than 22,000 in the pipeline – approved, outstanding to be built and completed since 2016.
Council leader Peter Jackson said: “The numbers are minimums. To go above that, developers have to present a strong argument that there’s a local need. We do feel that the judgement of this has not been rigorous in the past.”
New analysis published in August also showed that the supply of new homes in Northumberland has far outstripped the estimated need in recent years – unlike large parts of the country.
Fewer than one in five areas of England are building enough homes every year at a pace to meet the Government’s medium to long-term housing need estimates, and the majority of areas have still not got back to supplying new homes at the same rates they were before the economic crash.
But this is certainly not the case in Northumberland, where the average supply of new homes per year is 135 per cent of the Government’s annual assessment of housing need (707 a year).
Some claim that because of factors like this, the figure in the new local plan is still way too high, while others believe the opposite and are calling for a higher number to support economic ambitions and goals for new job creation.
John Blundell, from Ponteland, has given evidence at a range of planning inquiries and advice to campaign groups across the North East using Government statistical evidence on the likes of demographics, economics and housing.
“I have no issue with the identified housing crisis in the south,” he said. “I have no issue with commensurate housing requirement and affordability availability.
“The issue is there is no housing crisis in the North East. Houses do not create jobs, jobs create housing.”
His submission to the consultation states that there is no evidence of any economic or demographic requirement to justify 17,700 houses from 2016 to 2036, when Office for National Statistics (ONS) population data for 2016 suggests only 8,722, inclusive of affordability.
Mr Blundell also said that Northumberland County Council cannot be considered in isolation, but in the context of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s aspiration for 100,000 new jobs between 2014 and 2024, which is driving excessive local-authority housing figures.
He also claims that the driver is not housing, but money, and that there is no housing crisis, only a money crisis, pointing out that 17,700 extra homes would mean an extra £26.5million a year in council tax based on £1,500 as a band D average.
On the other side of the argument, Lugano, which is behind the Dissington Garden Village proposals for up to 2,000 homes near Ponteland, is among the property developers to submit representations to the council’s draft new local plan.
The Newcastle-based company objects, saying that the proposed reduction in housing numbers ‘is based on overly optimistic, opaque, and untested assumptions’, which have been ‘over-exaggerated by the county council in an attempt to artificially suppress housing needs, misleading the electorate as to the devastating impacts that would result’.
It claims that its own evidence ‘formulated by eminent economists and advisors to the industry, Chamberlain Walker, shows that more transparent and realistic assumptions demand a requirement closer to 27,000 new homes over the proposed plan period.
‘This in turn would result in a more sustainable economy for Northumberland and would properly address significant affordability and employment issues in the county’.
Richard Robson, chairman of Lugano Property Group, said: “Disappointingly, the council seems content only to try to keep up with population growth which will be devastating to the vitality of Northumberland.
“Indeed, it will see a substantial decrease in the working age population and the number of children in Northumberland, setting it onto a path of decline. This is completely at odds with the wider region’s ambitions for growth.
“We will be pushing hard for suitable changes to the plan and Dissington Garden Village remains a significant driver for economic growth that is fully in tune with central government’s ambition to deliver new communities and affordable homes.
“Lugano is currently involved in a legal dispute with three individuals at the council and the council itself regarding the handling of the Dissington Garden Village planning application and issues relevant to it, so it would not be appropriate to comment further on the application or those issues at this stage.”
Meanwhile, the Labour opposition is sticking to its guns over its core strategy which had been submitted to the Government for independent examination before they lost power at County Hall last May and it was withdrawn.
A spokesman for Northumberland Labour said: “We’ve consistently argued that the council bungled the removal of the original core strategy for reasons that will now be tested out in a legal process.
“We believe the best course of action for Northumberland’s taxpayer is to reinstate the original core strategy which was backed by a Conservative government and built in realistic economic growth plans to allow our county to attract new businesses and to grow.
“We’re not holding out much hope that the current Tory administration will be listening from the bunker, but they must start to realise the vast swathes of public cash that are being wasted on ill-thought-out political projects.”
A Northumberland County Council spokesman said: “Through the new local plan, the council is proposing housing numbers which ensure that Northumberland has sufficient homes to meet the needs of all of its communities, and to support the council’s economic ambitions.
“We want to extend choice in the housing market, by supporting the delivery of attractive housing options which will enable residents to get onto the housing ladder, rent an affordable home and have access to specialist housing, and attract people into the county to boost the economy.
“The plan proposes 17,700 new dwellings over the plan period, as opposed to 24,000 in the previous plan. This number has been informed by up-to-date economic forecasts and projections of household growth, and is at a level above the minimum local housing need identified by Government methodology.
“The number of new homes proposed for each geographic area takes into account the plan’s spatial strategy, the population of settlements, and constraints to development, such as green belt. The number of homes already approved in each area has also been a factor.
“We want to build the right homes in the right places and are not proposing any new housing development in the green belt.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service