Monthly Archives: April 2015

Protect our Green Belt and Provide the Affordable Homes we Need

Protect our Green Belt and Countryside

Green Belt prevents housing sprawl: vital to sustain the balance between Surrey’s settlements and our fantastic countryside. But Green Belt planning permissions have doubled since the coalition government’s new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF, which three developers drafted) was adopted in 2012. Why? Because the government’s new planning framework has made it easier to do so – and has set higher housing targets based on the ‘housing need’.

Locally, rather than increase affordable home provision and protect our Green Belt the way this new planning framework is structured has led our Local Council to plan to build up to 1400 homes on the Green Belt, East of Redhill and/or South West of Reigate, for the first time.

Address the Crisis in Affordable Housing

House prices have sky-rocketed, especially in London and the South East. These high prices make it harder for local people in the Reigate area to afford to rent, let alone buy a new home.

This is the result of a combination of coalition housing policies that have recreated the economics of ‘boom and bust’, and of inequality, in the form of another housing bubble – the very thing that underpinned the last financial crisis.

As well as loosening controls on developers to make building on greenfield and Green Belt sites, the government has stopped providing truly affordable homes for those who need them, which has helped drive up housing prices for everyone. These policies included:

  • drastically reduced funding to Raven and others to build affordable homes (an 84% cut locally) so less is being built; 
  • the government made new affordable housing 60% more expensive, so this less affordable new social housing is now harder to get, and now competes directly with the buy-to-let market; and
  • a get-out clause which allows developers to avoid providing the affordable homes we need, so many new homes are instead snapped up for private rent.

This is reflected in zero affordable homes being provided by developers in the Liquid and Envy site and station redevelopment in Redhill, as neither exceed the profit threshold that comes before a developer is required to provide any affordable housing at all.

The result is less affordable homes and above inflation rises in both house prices and private rents locally. With house prices averaging eleven times incomes, many people are priced out of home ownership altogether. But even worse it has led to much higher homelessness in Reigate (an average of 50 households in emergency and B&B accommodation now) and made food banks part of a ‘new normal’ – needed to address hand-to-mouth levels of poverty in Redhill, Merstham, Preston and now Banstead.

A Better Plan Needed

The Conservative’s plans are to spend billions to extend the Right-to-Buy initiative which would reduce the amount of affordable housing, so make things worse. Right-to-Buy has seen less than half of the homes sold replaced with new affordable homes since 2012. Less affordable housing, means prices remain high – not only leaving much new housing in the hands of overseas investors but keeping the ‘market need’ pressure to build on London’s Green Belt.

The Green alternative is to provide the affordable homes we need locally, address the so-called Generation Rent and strengthen planning to protect the Green Belt again. But ultimately, unless we rebalance the economy of the whole country, the South-East’s Green Belt will likely be overtaken by unsustainable urban growth in the next 25 years. Instead, housing must be part of an economic plan that creates a sustainable economy across the UK not just rising inequality and house prices here. We have a growing imbalance between higher unemployment and cheaper homes up North and a crisis of affordability here. So, instead of further stoking London’s economy and housing market as highlighted by the CPRE, with airport expansion and continuing tax avoidance in the city of London, we need to create jobs across Britain where unemployment persists and empty homes and brownfield sites abound.

We CAN do this. We can provide the truly affordable housing we need locally and reinstate strong protection of our countryside and Green Belt, and plan a UK economy that works for all. 

Follow the Money? – Why Incinerators cost more and lead us to recycle less

Decision time this month

The final decision on whether to progress with a so-called ecopark in Surrey was not made in the planning meeting (2 days before the planning permission granted in 2012 was due to run-out) but is due to be made when Surrey County Council Conservatives review a value-for-money assessment later this month. But whatever this concludes – whether Surrey saves or loses money from building the ecopark – it will cost British taxpayers a lot of money every year it operates. Here I briefly explain why. And set out a clear alternative.

Do the Math – It Costs More to Burn Waste

So what happens when we choose to build an extra incinerator instead of using existing landfill space or improving recycling?

Surrey’s new incinerator at Shepperton may or may not save the council money. Taking government average figures for new incinerators (Defra, 2013) suggest it could be between £20 cheaper and £35 more expensive per tonne than landfill costs us now, and around £70 to £140 per tonne more expensive than recycling.

That is because of around £100 per tonne Surrey pays to landfill waste, this only costs us, as taxpayers, around £20 per tonne as £82.50 per tonne of this is reclaimed by the government in landfill tax.

This means that the treatment of 55,000 tonnes of waste a year taken by the incinerator at the so-called ecopark at Charlton Lane could be saving Surrey County Council up to £1.1 million a year OR costing Surrey up to £1.9 million a year. We don’t know which, because Surrey is keeping these figures confidential.

But regardless of whether Surrey saves or loses money the government loses a lot more: around £4.5 million in lost landfill tax revenues each year. So, Surrey’s decision to shift waste from landfill to incineration will cost the British taxpayer overall between £3.4 and £6.4 million a year – which is between £85 million and £160 million pounds over the 25 year life of the plant.

[And this is before considering the upfront government money in the form of a ‘private finance initiative’ deal and the additional money that our waste contractor may get if they can prove that the two seconds the waste is ‘gasified’ before being burnt allows the Shepperton plant to classified as a certain type of incinerator (a gasification plant) so it gets even more government funding.]

I think it is ludicrous for Surrey County Council will have to make further cuts across the council – because the government encourages it to build an incinerator which reduces by millions the money that is available to allocate to local councils, including Surrey.

The Result: Planning to Recycling less.

Surrey County Council just passed its new Waste Management Strategy redefines recycling to include recovery – street sweepings, leaves and burning wood – in its target – dropping from a 70% target for recycling into one that is something over 60% instead. Surrey’s Conservatives should not accept that recycling rates are stalling and then pay more for privilege to burn ever more waste.

The £85 and £160 million of public money saved from not building the eco-park could be invested in good waste management: reducing, reusing and recycling even more of what we currently throw away.We should follow best practice in Europe, where the best councils aim for zero waste without incineration, with over 85% recycling rates already being achieved. But this needs the government to work with councils – and incentivise reuse and recycling rather than costing millions of taxpayers money when we decide locally to burn more waste.

The Alternative: Save Money by Recycling More

This extra money spent burning our waste could be instead be used to help us to recycle more. We could invest in building new recycling plants rather than building incinerators – to keep jobs in recycling plastics, and reverse the decline of UK paper recycling. This approach could create green jobs across the UK, a different way to rebuild our economy. The government should support councils across the country to make it easier to recycle where it is hardest – like in blocks of flats (45 councils supported – but not Surrey) instead of choosing to incinerate waste where recycling rates are lowest. This would be real leadership – inspiring all of us to make Surrey better together.

Who Benefits

So, who benefits from the current approach? Not the government or Surrey Councils.Instead it is the waste companies will who earn more and more per tonne for disposing of our waste.We can save a LOT of money by not pouring valuable resources into incinerators. The green alternative is to invest in what want actually want – better recycling collection and creating even jobs that can then reuse and recycle these valuable resources – which would be better for us all.

Standing up for a Better Future – no to Gatwick or Heathrow expansion

The local Green Party, like many others, has formally objected to an extra runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow Airport. We pointed out that there has been no assessment of health impacts, there would be a definite increase in noise and that an increase in flights would make it impossible to meet our climate targets.

The Airport Commission’s evidence clearly set out many negative impacts associated with expanding either airport. I was shocked that neither Surrey County Council nor Reigate and Banstead Borough Council opposed  doubling the size of Gatwick Airport. Our County Council’s fence-sitting is conditional on more money for expanding road and rail capacity if Gatwick is expanded. Meanwhile, the Borough Council has opted to remain neutral while accepting that the Airport Commission’s analysis that an extra 130 homes/year here would require ‘some’ building on the Green Belt.

Local MPs here argue against expansion in Gatwick while remaining relaxed about expanding Heathrow airport instead. MPs around Heathrow say the opposite. How selfish. Sustaining our quality-of-life is not more important than someone else’s right to a decent life. And how hypocritical for the UK to submit our draft commitment to reduce carbon emissions this month and then consider further aviation expansion after the election next month. Without words being backed up by actions then the world will see a UK posturing, not leading on climate change.

Choosing to expand aviation is part of a short-sighted economic strategy that depends on continually expanding the scale of everything – including inequality – at the expense of our communities and our local and global environment. Instead, we can make better use of what we have already got. This requires us to be better connected to each other – not have better flight connections to China. Bigger is not automatically better. That is why we remain opposed to runway expansion, not just at Gatwick Airport but elsewhere too.