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Eastleigh by-election parties fight over policy they both support

13 February 2013

Alarming news reaches this blog from the Eastleigh by-election, where the battle has descended into a catfight about a policy the two main parties support at national level. How unusual for parties to detach themselves from their own policies when a prize seat is in sight: this time round it’s the Lib Dems and Tories fighting over a development of new homes in the area on greenfield land.

The Lib Dem leaflets promoting Mike Thornton say ‘residents are angry with the Conservatives for putting green fields under threat from big builders’. The Tories backing Maria Hutchings point out that Thornton and his Lib Dem colleagues on the council voted in favour of the local plan for Eastleigh, which includes provisions for up to 4,700 new homes on greenfield land. Oddly enough, both parties at a national level backed the government’s Localism Bill and coalition ministers in the Communities and Local Government department worked together to develop the National Planning Policy Framework.

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Fighting a by-election on protecting green spaces is hardly a new tactic. But it’s still disappointing as at a national level both parties have been outspoken on the need for more homes to solve this country’s housing crisis. Pollsters will point out that it’s also all about the framing of the arguments. Turn up on the doorstep and tell someone their area is about to get a new development of homes and they’re unlikely to react well. Tell them that new homes are being built in their area so that their children can afford to stay there and they’ll be much more positive.

In Eastleigh, research by housing charity Shelter found rents rose by £289 between October 2011 and September 2012: a rent inflation of 3.2 per cent while wages rose by just 1.5 per cent, and house prices in the constituency are 7.76 times the average wage, as opposed to 6.65 nationally. Yet just 220 new homes were started in Eastleigh in 2011/12, down from 310 the previous year.

I had a conversation with a Tory MP recently which underlined this. We’d been discussing some of the problems with the ‘bedroom tax’, and the concerns that this MP had about cutting housing benefit for the under-25s. But a little later, we started talking about development. The MP said they would vote against any plans to water down protections for greenfield sites because they ‘believed in the green belt’. They didn’t see the connection between the two: if you keep taking away with one hand so that house prices and rents rise as a result of the housing shortage, there comes a point where the state cannot afford to keep giving with the other hand in the form of housing benefit to cover those soaring rents. I also always wonder when someone says they ‘believe in greenfield’ whether they realise how arbitrary the designation for greenfield actually is: the quality of the landscape is not relevant to whether land is included within a green belt (you can read the criteria here), and research suggests 60 per cent of the green belt is actually devoted to intensive farming.

Of course, it’s naive to expect candidates to start knocking on the doors of Eastleigh constituents and engage them in an argument about housing demand, just as it would be foolish (but perhaps not impossible) for Ed Miliband to pitch up at a local market stall and tell shoppers ‘I want to talk to you today about pre-distribution’. The other big fight in this very local by-election is, after all, about a gravel pit. But this scrap is a useful foretaste of the sort of campaigns other Tories and Lib Dems will run in 2015. Though it is laudable for a minister to speak from an ivory tower about the housing shortage being the greatest threat to social justice, it is far more tempting at constituency level to talk about ‘protecting green spaces’.

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  • Tom Oliver

    The NPPF policy really couldn’t be much clearer: “the fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.

    Green Belt serves five [very significant] purposes:

    ● to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
    ● to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
    ● to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
    ● to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
    ● to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict
    and other urban land.”

    The point about the permanence of Green Belt designation is to encourage land (specially brown field land) which is NOT in a Green Belt to be developed in a planned and responsible way when necessary and remove the ‘hope’ value for development of land which is designated.

    Most Green FIELD land is not designated as Green BELT land, of course.

    Landscapes can be designated for their quality (National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and local, non-statutory landscape designations used to be possible as part of the local democratic process. But Green Belt serves another purpose.

    Furthermore, protecting land for intensive farming is a wise thing to do: where else are we going to grow our food efficiently otherwise?

    There are good financial and social reasons for concentrating urban development: for example, at a density of 40 units of housing (flats or houses) per hectare, a bus service can be run without subsidy. That’s quite useful in an age of declining public funding and concern about CO2 emissions.

    Lastly, the designation of any area of Green Belt can be reviewed in an iteration of the local plan. It all adds up to a wise and effective system.

  • andagain

    at a national level both parties have been outspoken on the need for more homes to solve this country’s housing crisis.

    And they will continue to be outspoken on the need for more homes to solve this country’s housing crisis. They just will not let anyone build any more homes. Especially not in the Home Counties, where unemployment is low.

  • CharlietheChump

    Never expect anything but dirty politics from the LiebDims

  • In2minds

    Your picture should carry the title, The problem and the solution.

  • Deputy Dawg

    So once again the issue of the housing crisis comes up and Isabel Hardman says nothing about immigration as the major cause for it. Nor that most new houses, if built, will be filled with immigrant families.

    No wonder there is a housing crisis in London. Half the population are immigrants. No wonder house prices are unaffordable, all the cheaper accommodation has been taken by immigrants whose ever increasing numbers drive the prices higher and higher.

    But Isabel entirely and consistently supports unlimited housing to support unlimited immigration – its the New Spectator line.

    • CharlietheChump

      Its what the metro political elite believe irrespective of party

  • Russell

    So really it is only the LibDema who are hypocrits as the local LibDem council have given the go ahead against the wishes of the people which the Conservatives and LibDems in government think local people should decide.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    So Tweedle Dum wants houses and to protect the green belt but Tweedle Dee vehemently opposes this on the grounds that they want to protect the local green belt while advocating much needed housing for locals.

    I bet Tweedle Doo is passionate about affordable local housing and protecting local amenities such as the green belt.

    • telemachus

      The issue here is that neither party has taken advantage of the three year opportunity that they have had to build the desperately needed houses
      If the good folk of Eastleigh care about housing and care about the economy they will heed the “build for growth” message of the charismatic one.

      • Nicholas chuzzlewit

        “Charismatic One” No I don’t think Elvis will be helping the people of Eastleigh any time soon!

        • telemachus

          In years to come Ed Balls may have the adulation of Elvis
          Keep spreading the message

  • Archimedes

    I have to hand it to him, George Osborne consistently comes top on the Pez Dispenser impersonation rankings.

  • The Red Bladder

    I suppose that the parish pump type of politics will inevitably be a major issue with an election of this type. Local people casting their votes on local issues – surely that is to be applauded? Mind you there does seem to be a touch of ‘cake and eat it’ in some quarters here!

  • ScaryBiscuits

    Isabel, true Conservatives will always be in favour of protecting the Green Belt. Osborne’s desire to concrete over the countryside has been driven purely by property developers chasing higher profits and avoiding VAT on brownfield sites, bribing their way into dinner parties with the Cameroons.

    Yes, we don’t see any link between building on the green belt and lower house prices because as long as you have out-of-control immigration the demand is infinite. It is strange that you don’t mention immigration because this is the primary driver of both house prices and spiralling housing benefits costs. So much for the ‘economic advantages of immigration’ trumpeted by T Blair and his cheerleaders like you.

    • Fergus Pickering

      But you must admit, Scarybiscuits, that if 60% of greenfield sites are devoted to intensive farming (what is that?) it makes a difference. We, it appears, will die for chicken batteries. I think I prefer immigrants.

      • CharlietheChump

        I prefer horses and dogs

      • ScaryBiscuits

        More immigrants mean we need more intensive farming to feed them. You can’t have one without the other.

        • Fergus Pickering

          We don’t have to feed them. They can forage. Or they could eat the idle unemployed.

          • ScaryBiscuits

            But surely they could do that in their home country?

            • Fergus Pickering

              It’s OUR idle unemployed I want them to eat.

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