Ten years ago Mike Cook and I sat in a crowded corset factory in Letchworth and argued the case against having to meet Ipswich's seemingly impossible target of 20,000 houses in the period until 2021. Such a target was always going to be difficult to reach, not because we didn't want them, not because we didn't need them, but simply because there wasn't that amount of green space within the Borough. In Ipswich there is an abundance of previously used land, brownfield sites that are central and available, but such sites are not at the top of the developers' build here next list. We used to call them 'bomb sites'*, today they are typically untidy, unloved and an eyesore to passing motorists, visitors and in particular nearby residents. This surplus of brownfield land is typical of most UK towns and cities.
And what we also lack is the ability to insist on a 'brownfield first' policy. Developers know that spacious, level, accessible farmland is much cheaper to develop than brownfield sites. Previously used town centre sites frequently require demolition (particularly the removal of the foundations of what previously stood on the site), they probably require an archaeological dig (to be paid for by the developer), the site might need de-contaminating and such spaces are usually restricted and confined by adjacent property.
The outcome of the Letchworth meeting was that the Regional Assembly imposed a target for house-building for Ipswich and other East Anglian towns. Luckily for Ipswich, the Regional Assembly folded and this effectively removed the target. What this didn't do, of course, was to remove the demand for new homes. Jump forward ten years and we have the Northern Fringe developers pushing timescales and requesting they start building, before the SPD (Supplementary Planning Document) is finalised.
The difference today is that we are operating under the New Planning Policy Framework together with a Government that suggests house building is the cure-all for the economic troubles of the country. Gone are the halcyon days of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act which put an end to ribbon development and added protection for the greenbelt around towns. The new rules have been formulated by the Home Builders Federation, the Country Land & Business Association and the British Property Federation, who reported to Eric Pickles's Local Government department.
Ten years ago 80% of housing development was on brownfield sites but under the present Government this has dropped to about 50%. When applications for out-of-town supermarkets have been referred to Eric Pickles as Secretary of State, 75% have been allowed.
The Land Bank held by the major housing developers is currently in excess of 1.5 million plots, to which can be added the one million existing houses which are empty. This bank of property which could be made available in a short time frame exceeds the expected house building output twenty-fold. Nationally we need 230,000 houses per year; however we are currently building only 110,000 houses per year.
Almost without exception - not including central London - almost all housing development is limited to two, three or occasionally four storeys. On the continent five is the norm and in continental city centres the whole terrace rises to typically eight storeys.
Ipswich currently has just under 60,000 homes of which two thirds are owner occupied but new build housing which should be 700 per year has dropped below 200 and last year, according to the Government website, we actually built less than 2.5 houses per 1,000 of existing stock (just over 150 homes added to the 60,000).
[*landowners often refer to them nowadays as 'car parks' - Ed.]