White Paper heralds tougher demands on housing developers
Harpenden's MP Bim Afolami, addressing a Harpenden Society online Zoom meeting of over 70 society members in late February, said a major change in the way housing development planning applications were handled was mooted in a government White Paper coming before Parliament. Under the proposed revisions, developers of large housing schemes would be required to commit the funding of supporting infrastructure – GP surgeries, schools and so on – ‘up front', as a planning condition. Too often, he asserted, developers currently wriggle out of such commitments by claiming they will result in higher, ie less affordable, prices for new homes.
In answering a question from a 27-year-old meeting attendee Bim acknowledged that housing issues offered particular challenges in a town like Harpenden, especially for young people trying to get on the housing ladder. Because it was such a desirable place to live, prices were correspondingly high. He emphasised the need not only to build more homes in the town, but to ensure a property ‘mix' to include more affordable apartments and smaller houses.
He also suggested, perhaps controversially, that young people of necessarily limited means, some of whom might have grown up in Harpenden, could consider looking for less expensive first homes in say Wheathampstead, Redbourn or Sandridge. He added that extended mortgage terms, of up to 35 years, now being offered by some lenders, was also helpful for first-time home buyers.
Luton Airport expansion was another vital topic raised by two Zoom session questioners, where Bim reasserted his opposition not only to the airport's ultimate plans to increase capacity from 18 to 32 mppa (million passengers per annum), but also to the now ‘Covid-reduced' target of 19 mppa. Neil MacArthur from pressure group HarpendenSky asked for an assurance that the application, from the airport's owner Luton Borough Council, should be ‘called in' by a relevant government minister, be it for transport or the environment. Bim replied that such a move faced parliamentary difficulties because it was essentially a planning issue, where the government has traditionally been disinclined to overrule local authority decisions.
On the less directly local, but just as vital, matter of climate change, Bim talked up the present government's pledge to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars (without referring to the latter's CO2-reducing advantage over the former) by 2030, in favour of all-electric power. He was challenged by meeting attendee Paul Gloess on what was alleged to be his Commons voting record against climate change prevention measures. Bim replied that his opposition was to unrealistic and wholly unachievable measures, notably those which would move UK carbon emissions ‘offshore', doing nothing to cut them globally, which was the climate change yardstick.
Local climate-change-relevant environmental issues raised at the meeting included the risk of flooding in the area, which would be made more serious by future development on green field sites. Bim agreed that a new reservoir in the area was needed to also address the water supply requirements of a growing local population.
The mere fact that the February meeting had to be held via Zoom was a reminder of the ongoing Covid lockdown. Bim was asked why the toughest restrictions should remain in place in areas like Harpenden where rates of infection and hospitalisation were among the lowest in the country.
He said any easing of the lockdown implied a reinstatement of the Tier regime; and that was not sensible as long as the vaccination programme remained uneven across the country. He nevertheless took the opportunity to say that health secretary Matt Hancock had written him a letter which singled out Harpenden for special commendation in the effectiveness of its vaccination organising, praising the Harpenden Trust in particular for its work of stewarding.