OPINION: Improving on what’s already there

Building in back yards could help ease the island’s housing shortage, suggests Trevor Cooper

OF ALL the building atrocities across the island, and the list is long and varied, none has caused more lasting damage than ribbon development. Every arterial route in Guernsey has been subjected to a linear pattern of building along both sides of the road, leaving only glimpses of the green open spaces yonder through an almost continuous wall of post-war bungalows. Our parishes have merged together and lost much of their traditional identities beyond their enduring churches.

Ribbon development rapidly swept across Britain in the 1920s due to road improvements and increased traffic, ultimately leading to the Restriction of Ribbon Development Act 1935. This legislation did not apply in Guernsey, where ribbon development continued at a pace after the Second World War and well into the 1960s.

But instead of just complaining about it, how can the island make better use of such a dubious legacy? With no disrespect to the various properties, many of which have since been much improved, they were mainly modest dwellings of basic construction on vast size plots, certainly by today’s standards. Let’s remember that following the Occupation industrious islanders did not use gardens just for leisure and recreation but chiefly for cultivating crops, fruit and flowers for themselves and to supplement their incomes. Those long, narrow rear gardens were put to good use but now lay redundant in the main.

With the benefit of the excellent resources of Digimap Guernsey, a private company partnered with the States to provide digital maps of our Bailiwick, it is obvious at a glance to see a multitude of potential building plots behind several miles of ribbon development across various parts of the island, without encroaching onto any adjacent green fields. Many of these potential sites are adjoining, allowing for neighbouring new-builds to share one access point onto the public road. Being arterial routes these roads already hold the required public utility services and will withstand a traffic impact assessment. Regular public transport is on the doorstep and food shops and schools are in close proximity, particularly across the entire south of the island.

Not that every owner will want to take advantage of their rear garden’s potential for development and neither should they need to. A public consultation in 2013 by what was then the Environment Department made a Call for Sites that gave property owners an opportunity to suggest land available for development, naturally without any guarantee of selection. The initiative was restricted to sites in or on the edge of the Island Development Plan’s main and local centres and prompted 129 possibilities, large and small, some of which have since been developed, some of which have applied for development and been rejected and no doubt others that remain in the mix.

Imagine the response if an island-wide Call for Sites were made to owners of properties along arterial routes with gardens of half-an-acre or more. With strict provisions on spatial design and suitability an almost imperceptible profusion of low-impact new homes would emerge with a wide target market of buyers currently demoted in our local housing’s pecking order.

Let’s make better use of ribbon development by encouraging ‘yimbyism’ – yes in my back yard.

Trevor Cooper.

Of course, this would be in direct contravention of the Development & Planning Authority’s IDP, that flawed and outdated square peg for a round hole. And here’s a similar initiative that will have planners shaking their heads.

Buyers and indeed mortgage companies are becoming increasingly reliant on the bank of Mum and Dad, either to supplement funds or offer their own homes as added security against a mortgage for their children. Add to this an acute lack of availability and the situation becomes even more expensive.

How much better therefore that owners of suitable properties be allowed to build a self-contained wing for their offspring to occupy. The close proximity will not suit some families but the advantages, security and independence afforded to someone or a couple saving towards a house of their own are hugely persuasive. Instead of paying rent elsewhere they will repay a flexible mortgage covering the cost of building the wing that in time can be transferred and added to the cost of a future house of their own.

The parents have added a valuable asset to their home with potential to house perhaps an elderly relative or paying tenant, possibly even a vital keyworker.

An essential element is that the wing must be self-contained, possibly attached to but otherwise wholly independent from the main house, without the need to share an entrance, a kitchen, a dining room or any other appurtenance currently required under planning regulations.

In order to prevent property owners from effectively creating a building plot on their land, thereby sub-dividing their property, the IDP will only allow an annex to be built for the integrated use of one household. Yet that rule doesn’t apply to subdividing a large house into separately owned flats.

We should be making better use of already developed parcels of land in a proportionate fashion in all parts of the island, not just in main and local centres incapable of taking the load. It certainly doesn’t mean a free-for-all charter for mass expansion. As with backing new housing onto existing ribbon development, the overall effect to the public eye would be largely imperceptible with appropriate design, and certainly commendable in terms of sustainable land use. Availability would increase, which under normal market conditions would reduce prices, although that will always be incremental on an island where space is at a premium.

Not that any of this can happen under the policies of the current IDP, which the DPA continues to tinker with rather than suspending it altogether and, as I’ve said before, allowing the DPA discretionary powers for the public good until a better plan is hatched.

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