Keeping more of one’s Council Tax receipts isn’t that great when almost 60 per cent of the housing stock in your borough is in Band A. Pendle Council’s income has diminished by an eye-watering 50 per cent in just a few short years. As Council Leader, I’ve made imaginative cuts and we are just about holding on, but only by digging into reserves.
Build more houses I hear you say? Get our hands on all those lovely new homes bonuses? Sounds appealing, except that house prices remain on the floor and the population is resolutely stagnant. In fact, some of the towns’ populations in Pendle have declined over the last century and there can’t be many areas that can say that.
Meanwhile, we have been set a 298 annual housing target and, while that might sound like small potatoes to some, it is a tall order when, despite planning permission being granted for almost a thousand houses, last year, only a few dozen were actually built.
Despite making huge headway bringing empty homes back into use and reducing them by 50 per cent, as well as improving the worst housing stock, our towns and villages remain blighted by former mill sites lying empty. The developers, understandably, are eyeing green fields and are putting in unpopular applications for large estates without facilities. Many boroughs across the North face the same conflicts.
As a council we aren’t anti-development, just anti poor development in wrong areas.
It isn’t just the dreaded “doughnut effect” I’m seeking to avoid. It isn’t even an aversion to the advertising strewn boarding that surrounds these sizeable plots. Durham University published research last year showing that people living near Brownfield Sites are significantly more likely to suffer from poor health than those living in areas with little or no brownfield land. Regardless of contamination, brownfield could have wider negative impacts on the general health of communities. This makes perfect sense to me.
Also, who would want to invest in a place that boasts so many Brownfield Sites, once totemic of Lancashire’s proud industrial past, now neglected and, frankly, just an eyesore? Eager to attract more economic development, Potemkin-style boards aren’t the answer, investment is.
“Accessible and sustainable development” is an oft heard mantra, but to actually achieve it, we realised that we had to be proactive. I decided to take action. At our Budget Council, I surprised many by announcing a new capital programme for 2015/16 of £1.5 million for a Brownfield Regeneration Fund. This Fund will prime Brownfield Sites for development, making them both attractive and viable.
Using receipts from sales of homes currently being renovated by our Council’s public-private development company, we are setting aside £1.5 million and once up and running, we expect the Fund to become self-sustaining. It will be flexible, so that each case will be judged on its merits, with our Planning Department actively engaging to ensure that permission can be granted as quickly as possible.
This means that we can grow Pendle’s housing land supply, improve our towns and villages, attract more business investment and protect the rural landscape that makes Pendle so special. Conservatives don’t bleat when the going gets tough, they tackle the issues people elected them to tackle: head on.