Strategy promised for 'new generation of council housing in Northumberland'

A new council house-building programme in Northumberland was pledged as concerns over '˜affordable' housing were raised during a debate on the final draft of the county's Local Plan.

Thursday, 10th January 2019, 16:01 pm
Updated Friday, 11th January 2019, 07:20 am
Northumberland County Council

Council leader Peter Jackson said: “We have decided as an administration that we’re actually going to build a new generation of council housing in Northumberland and we’ll be one of the first authorities in the whole of the UK to start a major programme of council house-building.

“We will come up with that strategy, in absolute detail, about how we’re going to deliver that within the next two months.”

Council leader Peter Jackson

The announcement came as councillors agreed that the Local Plan, a crucial document which will shape the future of Northumberland up to 2036, should progress to the next stage.

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The publication draft of the framework – which sets out strategic planning policies and principles for the whole county, the general scale and distribution of new development, and the detail of where new homes, workplaces and facilities will be located – was considered at Northumberland County Council’s full meeting on Wednesday (January 9).

Following a lively discussion, members agreed to its publication for final public scrutiny before submission to the Government for inspection in May.

The first draft of the plan was consulted on over the summer and changes have been made since then, but the consultation on the latest draft, which is set to run from January 30 to March 13, is confined to the soundness of the plan, rather than the content.

Coun Steven Bridgett, ward member for Rothbury.

One of the updates, in line with the latest national guidance, is that the proportion of affordable homes required on a new housing development would be on a sliding scale, depending on where it is in the county – from 10 per cent in low-value areas through 15 and 25 per cent up to 30 per cent in the highest value areas.

This policy attracted the criticism of Rothbury ward member, Coun Steven Bridgett, who opened the debate with a fiery and lengthy speech in which he described it as a ‘disgrace’.

“I have never risen to speak in this chamber on a policy that makes me so angry,” he said. “I am actually ashamed of what has been put before us today in terms of affordable-housing contributions.

“I will not even attempt to fool my residents into thinking that this is a good deal for them, because they already know it is not. This is a bad deal for my residents and a bad deal for your residents.”

But Coun Bridgett’s contribution was slammed by members of the administration.

Coun Colin Horncastle, who chaired the local development framework working group that helped to develop the plan, asked where he had been for the last 16 months.

“We take our advice from professionals, not somebody who wants to come down from Rothbury every once in a while to pontificate in front of the cameras (the meeting was streamed live on YouTube) to pretend he’s doing a good job,” he added.

Coun Nick Oliver said: “We’ve listened to a very passionate speech about affordable housing that’s clearly been carefully crafted for the press.

“In the interests of balance, we need to make it clear that we are really interested and we are really determined to deliver as much affordable housing as is possible, but we have to have a pragmatic policy that will work and is deliverable.

“We’re not interested in political, theoretical positioning, what we’re interested in is pragmatic delivery on the ground.”

The council’s interim executive director of place, Paul Johnston, outlined that the plan has to be justified, with the evidence base for Northumberland supporting a flat rate of 17 per cent affordable-housing provision on all developments across the county, but that it also supports a variable approach across Northumberland, given the wide range of property values.

Coun Jeff Reid, leader of the Lib Dems, pointed out that the plan still has to get past a number of hurdles before it becomes an adopted document, including the independent examination.

“This has taken so long to get to this point, stopping and starting, messing about, and I include my administration in that; we just to have to get on with this,” he said. “We have got to start building our defences against people who want to build stuff we don’t want.”

The overall housing numbers have been much reduced from the previous core strategy, with 17,700 proposed over the 20-year plan period as opposed to 24,000 previously. There will be no new housing allocations in the green belt either.

But Labour leader, Coun Grant Davey, said that reducing the numbers at the same time as protecting the green belt from any housing will mean all the new homes are dumped in the south-east of the county.

“I have to agree with people who said this will kill off villages, it certainly will,” he added. “It will put major pressure on the services of this council in rural areas, because you will be servicing many, many more older people.”

This local plan was drawn up after the Conservative administration at County Hall withdrew the previous core strategy – one of the main elements of the local plan.

A Labour motion to reinstate the previous strategy and abort the local plan was due to go before councillors on Wednesday, but it was withdrawn.

Coun Davey first attempted to have this motion voted on last July and he said the delay had allowed the publication draft of the plan to be ‘rushed through’, taking the document to a point where any review now would be criticised for the added costs which would result.

In the end, his party decided to abstain on the vote, which meant the plan was supported by 37 members and opposed by one, with 22 abstentions.

The county council will run 23 public drop-in events at venues across Northumberland during February and March, and the details of these will be available online and in a leaflet delivered to homes and businesses in advance.

The plan will also be available in local libraries and information centres across Northumberland. Comments will be able to be made online or in writing to the council’s planning policy team.

To find out more about the plan, visit www.northumberland.gov.uk/localplan

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service