All posts by Caroline Page

Lib Dem County Councillor for Woodbridge, Suffolk; Elected 2008, 2009,2013; LD spokesman, Transport; Vice-Chair Education Transport Appeals; Speed Limit Panel member ; Campaigns for Rural Transport, Buses, Rail, Cycling, Young People, Libraries, Disability, Epilepsy & Carers

Could Melton Hill development plans get worse? Yes!

Still undeveloped, still unaffordable?

So, a new planning application has been made by Active Urban for the old SCDC office site at Melton Hill.

Does it differ from the last? Only in that it  now wants to offer 15 affordable homes instead of 33!!! 

Hard to believe. But they are apparently trying to take advantage of sonething called Vacant Buildings Credit (VBC)- an incentive to encourage development on brownfield sites. The fact that SCDC offices were only vacated to  sell for development has apparently slipped their goldfish minds and escaped their elastic consciences.

I cannot say how angry I am that this new application cynically prioritises monetisation of the site above the legacy benefits of providing for local need.

So Active Urban were apparently unable to deliver the required modest number of affordable housing units they were originally obligated to provide? Tough!

The answer cannot be to reduce the number of affordable units by two thirds! It must be to change the intention of the scheme – or change the developer.

At a meeting of Woodbridge Town Council’s Planning Committee I was one of five public speakers raising our concerns. There was no dissent.

As I reiterated, local people desperately need housing – but not the housing that developers want to build. We need starter homes, affordable family homes, homes for the disabled and downsizers. Active Urban want to build prestige homes, second homes, homes that exclude more and more local families. Why accept it?

Remember – Melton Hill wasn’t owned by the district council– it was held in trust for us by our elected and appointed servants. And ‘us’ means each and every one of us, rich and poor alike. The district council and its planning committee should respond to local need – not local greed.

Every week, I see families who’ve lived in Woodbridge for generations and whose children and grandchildren are now excluded from their hometown. Disabled people who must leave their support network. Old people who can’t even afford to downsize in the town they grew up. Our streets are filling with second homes, country bolt holes, investment properties, holiday lets, serving no residential use whatsoever.

We residents need the services of those who have been displaced. Who have to drive in, adding to already-chronic traffic and air quality problems. This development could either add to the problem or provide a solution.

I see from Carter Jonas reapplication the promise of 33 “affordable” (affordable, mark, not social housing) units has melted into 11.

Yes, ELEVEN.*

*The full application has generously increased this to 15.

Which, if agreed, will doubtless be as airy and insubstantial in actuality as the promised 33 of the last application.

I say that this entire flawed plan simply isn’t the answer. Local people – who have paid their council tax to fund Melton Hill – have significant unmet needs. Why don’t we start from there?

I have said this many times before: Woodbridge doesn’t need more high end housing.

It absolutely does need housing at social rent (that’s 65% of market rental value) for all those we rely on. Retained firefighters, care workers, shop assistants, young families, the teachers who can’t afford to live near our schools. The working twenty-somethings who can’t afford to leave home. Nurses, police, paramedics…

Over the years right to buy has caused Woodbridge to lose more and more of the key rental stock needed to let these valuable workers live in town.

I asked Woodbridge Town Council planning committee to reject this application – and they unanimously did! Their concerns are the concerns of everyone who lives in and loves our town.

Sadly not a single one of Woodbridge’s three district councillors were at the planning meeting, although two are also Town Councillors. Yet this development is probably the single most important issue to affect the town of Woodbridge  since  bombs  dropped on Castle Street and St Johns Hill a century ago. Electors take note.

I now call on the District Council to re-evaluate its priorities, put the town and residents of Woodbridge first and look strategically at development.

The benefits of developing the Melton Hill site – our site – as a Community Land Trust to provide (impossible to sell via r-t-b) housing at truly affordable rent  would be a magnificent legacy for the future and cover the council in glory.  I’ve proposed it before. I do so again.

Will the District Council listen?

Woodbridge’s Affordable Cheese Wedges – Smoke and Mirrors

The deserted Suffolk Coastal  offices. Still undeveloped, still unaffordable?

Its been quiet on the Woodbridge Cheese Wedge (aka Suffolk Coastal’s old head office ) front for a long time. Too quiet…

The burning question? That same old story. It seems that the applicant would rather not build the affordable housing (32 units out of 100 dwellings) he is obligated to under policy DM2 of the local plan. Apparently it’s simply not ‘affordable’ – for him.

Suffolk Coastal’s Planning Committee’s response reminds one of jesting Pilate. They washed their hands and delegated agreement of the essential affordable housing provision to their Planning Officers. Who have negotiated a sum of money (a ‘commuted sum’) be paid “to provide affordable housing at the same level as approved, in the event that no affordable housing provider acquires some or all of the affordable housing in a reasonable timescale.

Lets park the cynical phrase  “to provide affordable housing at the same level as approved’ for one moment, and follow the money.

This decision clearly – presumably  unintentionally – gives the applicant an opportunity to elect to pay the commuted sum option instead of building 32 affordable units simply by refusing any offer for affordable units from any provider. (I have heard that at least one realistic offer has been made. )

It would very much benefit the developer to pay the commutated sum. It would provide no benefit whatsoever to the people of Woodbridge.

Why?  The amount the applicant would have to pay NOT to build the 32 affordable homes is a maximum of £100,000 per unit *. Multiply that by 32 and you see he would in effect be paying about £3 million to be allowed to build 32 extra houses of the same size to sell at market prices ( in Woodbridge, that’s a great deal more than £100,000 each). The greater the number of affordable housing units and the higher the sales price of market housing, the greater the incentive to commute.

So, when the Council agreed an increase of residences from 70 to 100, it increased the incentive for the applicant not to provide affordable housing. And by the combination of the Council agreeing an increase in residences and commuting the affordable housing provision, the applicant will receive a multi-million pound windfall. Talk about the law of unintended consequences!  Unless Suffolk Coastal ‘s Planning Committee takes immediate action, it looks like the public asset that is the old Council Offices is earmarked for private profit.

At the same time, that commutated sum of £3million – supposedly to provide “Affordable Housing at the same level as approved” – will do little to benefit the forgotten people of Woodbridge. It will certainly not provide 32 units of affordable housing within Woodbridge which is what we might consider the phrase ‘at the same level as approved’ to mean.

Although £3million is considered by Suffolk Coastal’s planners as fair reparation for NOT building 32 homes on a site that has already been purchased, it will NOT cover the purchase of land, design, planning and building of anything like 32 homes anywhere else! Experts suggest 14 maximum, which is less than half of those guaranteed to the committee and promised to the community. And, of course, wherever these affordable homes are, they will be unlikely to be in Woodbridge, where finding any housing below ‘market’ prices is daily less possible. There is no land within Woodbridge to buy.

How can it be right that an applicant purchasing a public asset gains by not providing the agreed affordable housing the locality so desperately needs? Indeed, has a positive incentive not to provide it?

To say that the development was unpopular was to put it mildly. It was overwhelmingly opposed by the residents of Woodbridge and Melton, the Woodbridge County Councillor (me), Woodbridge Town Council, Melton Parish Council, and local and national organisations, whose views were overridden by the planning officers and planning committee. Its only saving grace was the possibility of affordable housing in situ.

The District Council Planning Committee needs to step up to the plate, rescind its delegation to the Head of Planning, and revert to its October demand for a detailed scheme for the provision of affordable housing on-site and to wholly abandon using the offer of a commutation alternative.

 

*The amount payable by the applicant in the event of commutation is set according to the number of bedrooms per residence in the affordable housing and whether the area  in which the housing is to be provided is categorised high, medium or low cost. Woodbridge is categorised high cost and the figure per residence is in the region of £90,000 -£100,000. Thus a commutation of the 32 affordable residences in Woodbridge would require a commutation payment of about £3 million. How many homes can you buy in Woodbridge for £3 million? How many can you build?

Suffolk Conservatives ‘can’t afford’ to fund cycling

Woodbridge Cyclists were among hundreds cross county to support the motion

On Thursday 19th I was due to second two motion proposed by the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group to develop a strategic costed cycling plan for Suffolk.  The motion was proposed by  my colleague Robert Lindsay, and – as I was unable to reach the meeting from my son’s graduation in Liverpool – seconded by  another colleague, Elfrede Brambley-Crawshaw (both Greens).

The first motion asked for a strategic, costed five-year cycling plan to be drawn up for Suffolk; secondly  we asked  for a commitment of 5% of the annual Integrated Transport Block (the equivalent of £160,000).
Both motions were vital: without a  commitment of funding, it will be impossible to implement a cycling plan.
However, the Conservatives refused to commit any funding whatsoever  to cycling infrastructure – thus managing to have their fiscal cake and eat it. Affordability is clearly a state of mind.
In the past, in the days when SCC was run by a Labour/LibDem coalition, SCC used to have a cycling team and  a costed cycling infrastructure plan – which was allocated funds from the Transport budget every year. In 1995 the then Country Councillors voted to fully support plans to develop the Sustrans’  National Cycle Network routes in Suffolk and steady progress was made with this for several years.
Cycling budgets don’t just benefit cyclists. They assist other forms off travel. other modes of travel:
1) Most off-carriageway cycle infrastructure is designed to be of equal benefit to pedestrians e.g. shared use cycle paths; Toucan crossing; bridges  – therefore ‘Safe Routes to School’ (for both cycling and walking).
2) More cycle commuters means less traffic on roads, leading to better journey times for those who really need their vehicles.
Since 2011, Suffolk and Ipswich were eligible for six sustainable travel grants from the Department for Transport, yet did not win a single one of these. By failing to commit a minimal amount of funding, it is likely that any future bids for funding will likewise fail.