Buckinghamshire Council’s Local Plan will shape future development in Wycombe for years to come. The Plan is currently at an early stage of the consultation. I have written to Ian Thompson, Corporate Director of Planning, Growth and Sustainability at Buckinghamshire Council, setting out my position on a range of issues. I strongly encourage all of my constituents to take part in the consultation so that your voices are heard and can shape the future of our area. The consultation can be completed through: https://www.buckinghamshire.gov.uk/planning-and-building-control/local-development-plans-info/buckinghamshire-local-plan/. The full text of the letter can be found below:
I am writing to you regarding the Local Plan for Buckinghamshire. The Local Plan will be a vital document for shaping future development and addressing the need for social and affordable housing. It must effectively balance the needs of the community – green spaces, housing, leisure and infrastructure. People want to live in well-built homes, with good local amenities. To keep up with the development of these new homes, Wycombe will need investment in health, education, and transport infrastructure. I am pleased to see these areas are considered in this questionnaire.
Further, our green spaces are vital to the character of the area and need to be protected from unsympathetic and irresponsible development. Our AONB must be protected, and the green belt preserved for future generations. Ensuring future development works for the people of Wycombe will require us to make the most of the brownfield land already available while ensuring the planning system is sufficiently flexible to adapt to the future economic, environmental, and infrastructural needs of the area. I have addressed these specific issues raised by the questionnaire below.
Place and homes
Green spaces in Wycombe are a key part of why it is such a great place to live and work. The wrong development could risk eroding our sense of place. Yet we also face serious issues of unaffordable housing, with the ratio of average house prices to average wages at one of the highest levels in the country. Residents and their children face being priced out of the area they have lived in their entire lives.
Packing ever more flats onto a diminishing supply of land in Wycombe will do little to alleviate these issues of affordability, and risks diminishing the character of our town. This provides little relief to young working families struggling to get onto the housing ladder. Future development in Buckinghamshire should not exacerbate the disparities of house prices that already exist within the county. There must be an equitable distribution of new development, in places where new homes make sense.
With Buckinghamshire Council’s “Brown before Green” pledge and the national government’s renewed focus on brownfield development, there is a fresh imperative we make the most of our brownfield sites for future development. We need to provide sympathetic development which improves the local amenity of our town.
Historic planning data in Wycombe suggests there is considerable room for improvement in the current process. Fewer than half of brownfield planning permissions are completed at 6 years from the date of approval. There is a limited variety of types, sizes and tenures of new developments. And developers frequently underdeliver contributions to the stock of social and affordable housing. The Local Plan will need to address each of these issues individually.
Social housing and affordable housing for key workers
Nationally, the available supply of social housing lags behind demand. To begin to address this, we need a clear picture of the current need for social housing in Buckinghamshire. Waiting lists should be evaluated to ensure they reflect the housing needs of local people.
Developers need to meet their obligations to contribute to social housing, which is why transparency in the planning process and negotiation of Section 106 obligations for social housing is so important. The scope for avoiding contributions through viability assessments should be clarified, and, where possible, narrowed. Previous affordable housing regulations in Wycombe meant that the majority of brownfield developments were not required to provide a single affordable home. Where residents are faced with the burden of new development, it is reasonable to expect developers to contribute fairly to the affordable housing stock.
For those with local connections, and for key workers who have supported the area throughout the pandemic, we should be providing a suitable mix of affordable tenures. This should include homes delivered through the Government’s First Homes scheme, which allows prioritisation of these groups. If we are to have the emergency service personnel, health workers, teachers and shopworkers required to meet the needs of Wycombe, they must be supported through our housing policy.
Nature and climate change
Wycombe’s natural environment is vital to the character of our area; it is one of the reasons it is such a popular location to live and work. In order to maintain this, we must protect our AONB and the green belt. A planning policy which emphasises brownfield development before greenfield will mitigate the risks of urban sprawl and preserve our open spaces. New development needs to be sympathetic to our natural environment. This will ensure Wycombe continues to be a great place to live and work.
I know that climate change is another key consideration for future development policy. For such an important area, it is vital that the public are fully engaged and consulted on what steps are being taken to address climate change. We need to ensure that the public are aware of and consent to the considerable costs associated with the push towards Net Zero.
As we recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, we must not disproportionately burden struggling individuals and families with these costs. Infrastructure investment, enhancement of our green spaces, renewable energy generation and sustainable building development will each form part of the strategy, but each has the potential to bring considerable costs to residents if implemented poorly. The costs of our approach to tackling climate change must not fall on the poorest in our society.
Work and activity
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to economic disruption and changes to our working lives on an unprecedented scale. Wycombe has a dynamic local economy, and I am aware of the pressure local business has been under during the last 2 years.
Anticipating the specific infrastructure needs of different industries and communities is not practicable. While we cannot predict how working patterns will continue to evolve, a flexible framework will help to ensure new development works for both business and residents. This means reducing the burden on individuals and developers navigating the planning process, while ensuring developers are contributing fairly to local infrastructure needs. In particular, change of use regulations in situations which will have minimal impact on surrounding residents should be relaxed to allow a dynamic local economy to flourish.
We need a planning system which is adaptable and productive instead of bureaucratic and adversarial. I have made representations to government ministers on how the current National Planning Policy Framework can be reformed to achieve these aims and would be delighted to work with Buckinghamshire Council to continue to lobby for reform in this area.
We are fortunate in Wycombe to live in a part of the country which is in high demand from new residents and new business investment. Yet development brings considerable extra demand on local infrastructure, and where developers fail to support this, residents end up unfairly carrying the costs of these developments.
Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charges and Section 106 obligations from developers provide major contributions for new infrastructure. Yet developers often fall short of their obligations through adversarial and opaque viability assessments. Those residents who face the pressure of new development often fail to recoup the benefits in the form of health, education and transport infrastructure contributions. Currently, the negative externalities of development frequently outweigh advantages from developer contributions.
Wycombe’s schools, health facilities, open spaces and transport infrastructure are all vital to making our town a great place to live and work. The support of this infrastructure by developers and an equitable, transparent distribution of developer contributions will be necessary to gain public consent for future development.
The Local Plan for Buckinghamshire Council will be an essential document for steering future development. I am pleased to see the scope of issues included in this initial questionnaire and look forward to supporting the Council as it develops a Local Plan which will continue to make Wycombe a great area for all. I will be encouraging my constituents to engage with this questionnaire and the consultation process.
CC: Cllr. Martin Tett