We need new housing, but at exactly what cost?

PUBLISHED: 12:11 15 November 2007 | UPDATED: 13:04 04 May 2010

THE company putting forward the Mereham development has said that the proposed new town near to the villages of Wilburton and Stretham would take real pressure off housing in Ely. But at what cost? Certainly local democracy and any vestige of local dec

THE company putting forward the Mereham development has said that the proposed new town near to the villages of Wilburton and Stretham would take 'real pressure' off housing in Ely.

But at what cost? Certainly local democracy and any vestige of local decision making in the planning process would be critically undermined if the new town becomes a reality.

Raising questions about the new development is not to ignore the housing shortfall we are facing.

I accept the need for more housing - and as the father of two grown-up children I share people's concerns about affordability - but I do not believe we should ride roughshod over democratic processes to achieve it. Rather we should find solutions that go with, rather than against, the grain of local opinion.

East Cambridgeshire is due to take more than 5,000 new houses by 2021 but many could be accommodated by allowing smaller villages to grow organically, thus reducing the pressure on towns and removing any need for Mereham. However, before we embark on new developments, there is a more sustainable approach we should explore.

Across England, there are about 680,000 empty homes and East Cambridgeshire has its share. If we are serious about easing the pressure on housing, we should start with an evaluation of the 911 homes that lie dormant in this area and make every effort to bring them into use. Clearly this is a complex issue but it is worth noting that even if just half of these properties could be filled we would have the equivalent of a town two-thirds the size of Mereham in 2012.

This would not just alleviate pressure to develop new sites and help meet future demand. It would reduce blight to adjacent properties, whose value can fall by an estimated 18 per cent as a result of the disrepair of the next door house and the crime and anti-social behaviour that this can attract.

Reusing empty homes appears a bit of a 'no-brainer'. However, like most things it is not quite as clear cut as it seems. In some cases it will be a short-term issue, where a property needs to be renovated before it can be occupied, or where it is in probate. Nevertheless, as the Government acknowledges, a significant proportion of homes that become empty remain so for long periods of time. It is on these properties that local authorities must focus.

I raised this issue two years ago with the then Secretary of State John Prescott and I am disappointed that since then the problem has got worse, not better. Last week, I discussed this matter with John Hill, the chief executive of East Cambridgeshire District Council, who assured me that an empty homes strategy is in place to address this problem.

The council will shortly be employing an empty homes officer. This person's first task will be to identify the owners of these empty homes - for which the majority are in private hands - and encourage them to bring their stock into use. Clearly there are some properties which lie empty for a perfectly good reason but for others enforcement action - where voluntary measures fail - may be required as a last resort to bring them into use.

This alone will not solve the housing problem, but it must be a key part of the strategy.

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