Tipping the balance
We must balance the demand for more houses against the need to protect the green lungs of our island, says Trevor Cooper.
A new serial is being streamed and, like all good hospital dramas, we are kept guessing what will happen in the next episode.
Three weeks ago the property lead for Policy & Resources, Deputy David Mahoney, spoke about building 90 sizeable private-sector houses on the former Castel hospital site, which took Deputy Peter Roffey by surprise. As head of the States committee responsible for social housing, he was quick to question P&R’s upmarket plans.
Development & Planning president Victoria Oliver, and the building industry in general, relished the prospect, even if the latter wondered why the States’ own GP11 planning policy requirement for 30% affordable housing on developments of more than 20 units did not apply.
La Societe Guernesiaise voiced concerns about the proposed development’s inclusion of ecologically valuable agricultural land, although the States’ own biodiversity officer has yet to make her views public.
Deputy Roffey, on the other hand, made it clear that he wanted the States-owned site to be reserved for social housing and built within the existing concrete footprint.
Deputy Lindsay de Sausmarez was equally adamant about the site’s parameters when she spoke as Deputy Roffey’s vice-president at ESS and president in her own right of Environment & Infrastructure, which is responsible for general housing policy as well as the environment.
According to Deputy de Sausmarez, the current planning laws and policies do not support anything close to the type of scheme proposed by P&R, adding that it would amount to suburbanisation of our countryside. ‘If the proposed development needs to encroach on the surrounding green land,’ she added, ‘then it would seem the housing density is wrong, it is quite simply urban sprawl.’
Deputy Mahoney’s claim that his committee was working closely with the planners at each stage was at odds with Deputy Oliver saying she was yet to see any drawings for the site. Advising in general that development frameworks expedite the planning process seemed to be the limit of her involvement at the time, also insisting that publicly expressing support for the project in principle would not affect her impartiality when considering the planning application.
There was a time when the States could lawfully disregard the island’s planning policies for its own purposes. Now the Development & Planning Authority must exercise impartiality and judge applications from fellow committees no differently than those made by private individuals or companies.
Notably, Deputy Oliver indicated that her committee is open to setting aside or making legal amendments to GP11 and other policies. In fact, the planning authority is already streamlining the current process for changing the Island Development Plan through the States Assembly, and not just for GP11 in this instance. It would be easy to pour scorn on this and even claim hypocrisy, but the controversial GP11 planning policy in its present guise has failed spectacularly to provide anything like the intended level of affordable housing.
This ongoing initiative by Planning & Development chiefly looks to improve efficiency by acting decisively, rather than having to rely on others down a long line to make a final decision. They say the current process for change can involve 15 steps, which the committee aims to reduce to four without any loss of scrutiny.
Many from within and outside the States are calling for a complete change of the existing Island Development Plan, already past its scheduled sell-by date of 2021. Making changes on the hoof, as one commentator phrased it, risks unwarranted changes under the cover of ‘crisis’.
Then, out of the blue at the weekend, we heard that P&R is revisiting options for the site, insisting a decision has not yet been made. Deputy Roffey called it a climbdown, whereas a P&R spokesperson said Deputy Mahoney had merely presented a vision intended to stimulate debate.
What for me is the most glaring omission in these discussions is talk of derelict vineries, the long-held stick with which we like to beat our deputies and planning department.
The current and apparently flawed Island Development Plan, introduced in 2016, essentially allows greater scope to redevelop redundant glasshouse sites, although the relevant OC7 policy prohibits residential development. Nevertheless, surely that chink in the policy armour is better exploited than ploughing into more green fields with anything other than a plough.
Opposing voices say that every house in Guernsey is built on what was originally open green land. The difference now is how the balance has changed irrevocably from when there was once plentiful field and pasture. There still is, but the tipping point moves ever nearer and the remaining open landscape – the green lungs of our island – must not be ridden roughshod over by the housing juggernaut. Inevitably, concessions will be made, on occasion should be made, but let these be peripheral and valid, not just an easy option.
As for redundant vineries, more than 250 have been pinpointed in the past, not that the flood gates need to be opened by using them all or even every part of them. At the time, 180 were immediately adjacent to land in agricultural use. Those should remain exempt from residential development. Taken a stage further, the States should offer a grant or its own resources in part at least to clear the site and return it to agricultural use.
Fifteen of the redundant vineries were located in or near local centres. They should be prioritised for residential use and, if these are genuine times of crisis, the States could legally use compulsory purchase measures to buy and develop them, with an assured capital return on the investment. The recent purchase of Kenilworth vinery at the Saltpans for £50,000 per plot provides a reasonable benchmark when assessing potential sites.
The remaining 55 known redundant vineries can stay as they are, unless the owners choose to have a quiet and sensible conversation with what appears to be our reinvigorated planning authorities.