Sam Clark is a former Conservative parish councillor living in Buckhurst Hill, in Epping Forest and a graduate in International Politics and French from Aberystwyth University.
If the recent kerfuffle over the not-party Christmas parties at Downing Street should have taught our party anything, it is that British voters will excuse many errors of judgement but they will not be taken for fools.
We are repeatedly told that what the country needs is more housing. In Epping Forest’s local plan, it is expected 11,400 houses will be needed over the next decade. The logic presumably being that more houses will bring down the cost for first time buyers trying to get on the property ladder.
It doesn’t quite work like that though does it? It is easier to buy a property if you already own a property. The policy is incorrect. Real reform of the housing market is needed. It won’t happen – but I would argue a Conservative Government should restrict the purchase of properties for the buy-to-let market. This would be transformative, allowing the UK to once again become a home-owning democracy. It would help young people who find themselves in a vicious cycle of renting and who are unable to save up for a deposit.
Large scale developments are often unpopular with existing communities which have to absorb these additional properties, often with no additional services provided. As a local parish councillor in a densely populated part of Buckhurst Hill, telling local residents they would lose amenities, including recreational areas and parking, wasn’t exactly a vote winner at the most recent Parish election. ‘Vote for us and you can have a block of flats at the end of your garden for the privilege’ – it is a hard sell even to the most seasoned of Conservative voters. The local Conservatives lost all of their four seats at the most recent election in the area most affected by developments.
The argument that was often put across by colleagues was that in this brave new world we are entering, COP26 and all, the car would become redundant. Buckhurst Hill is served by two tube stations – so naturally why wouldn’t everybody just…you know…walk or cycle?
Whilst the home counties are more connected than many rural parts of the UK, for many trades-people having to carry goods and tools, or for those working unsociable hours or making deliveries, the car is still a requirement. The Underground works well for commuting in and out of London but it’s not practical for everybody. Environmentalism, and posing as being anti-car, cannot, or rather shouldn’t, be used as a way of increasing house building by subterfuge.
Large parts of Epping Forest, as the name suggests, are forested. In order to build additional houses, a Clean Air Zone, CAZ, was suggested – similar to London’s Low Emission’s Zone which would see drivers charged to drive through the forest. The logic, I presume, being that being seen to keep emissions down locally, and being environmentally friendly, would smooth the path for the proposed additional 11,400 houses. Voters have seen through this linking of environmental policies to house building.
Some may think large scale housing developments being unpopular is something limited to my area, Epping Forest. The recent by-elections in Chesham and Amersham, and Old Bexley and Sidcup, would suggest a wider trend, even a revolt, over the issue of building extra housing. A common characteristic of Epping Forest, Chesham and Amersham, and Old Bexley and Sidcup, is that they are all areas in London’s suburbs, in areas within the Green Belt.
As I understand it, one of the controversial issues at the recent by-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup was the decision to build houses in a park at Old Farm Avenue in Sidcup. The Conservative vote in the constituency fell by 13 per cent.
The story was the same in Chesham and Amersham, which was lost to the Liberal Democrats with a 19.9 per cent fall in the Conservative’s vote share. Some of the main issues raised at the time to explain the large swing in this seat was widespread opposition to High Speed 2 and proposed changes to planning law. Has anybody noticed a pattern?
The Conservative Party needs to focus on conserving our natural environment and heritage. In this way, we can be seen to be on the side of local residents in rural areas. At the moment, we are giving out the idea that a Conservative vote is a vote to concrete over your area. Without reform to planning laws, we will continue down our current trajectory at our peril.