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'No quick fix' to crisis, says expert, amid storm over 10,000-home Shropshire new town plans

By Mark Andrews | Oswestry | Business | Published:

After proposals for between 10,000 new homes around Tong in Shropshire, a civil engineering consultant has warned there is no "quick fix" to the housing crisis.

Up to 13,000 homes could be built around Tong

An extra £866 million in government funding to ease the housing crisis; Shropshire to get an extra £9.3 million for road projects to make it easier to build new homes.

And now there are proposals for between 10,000 and 13,000 new homes in a series of interlinked "garden villages" around Tong.

A major step to tackling the housing crisis?

Wayne Holt warns people not to expect a quick fix.

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"Trying to build yourself out of a housing crisis is like trying to dig yourself out of a hole," says the sceptical construction boss.

"Unless you recognise the overall picture, this situation won’t be remedied."

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As executive director of Midlands-based civil engineering consultancy Design2e, one would naturally expect Mr Holt to be a big advocate of spending more money on infrastructure. But while he broadly welcomes the Government's announcement, he says the housing crisis is an extremely complex issue that will not be fixed by money alone.

Mr Holt says the problem – particularly in rural areas such as Shropshire – is caused by a myriad of specific issues. These might not seem significant in themselves, but combined together can create a perfect storm.

"Just like the rest of the country, Shropshire is in desperate need of affordable housing," says Mr Holt, who has worked in the sector for more the 30 years.

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Wayne Holt, executive director of Design2e

"The growth of Telford as a ‘new town’ has helped to deliver a wide range of new properties, but the more rural areas of the county require investment.

"Housing is, on average, less affordable in rural areas than in urban areas. In 2016 the cheapest home in rural areas cost 8.3 times average earnings, compared with seven times in urban areas."

Housing Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor Philip Hammond last month announced that 133 council-led projects across the country would receive funding to support infrastructure work to make housing developments viable, to speed up the house-building process.

With the Government committed to building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, this is the first wave of funding from the £5 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund.

The money will fund infrastructure projects including such as new roads, cycle paths, flood defences and land remediation work. Mr Javid says without this financial support these projects would struggle to go ahead or take years for work to begin, delaying the homes that are needed.

Further alterations are planned for the Mile End roundabout in Oswestry as part of a £9.3 million scheme to support a new housing scheme

In Shropshire, an extra £9.3 million has been allocated for road improvements and a new footbridge in Oswestry, which the Government says will "unlock" 1,538 new homes. The news has been warmly welcomed by Shropshire Council's deputy leader Councillor Steve Charmley, who says the improvements will also boost a business park proposed for the area around the A5 and A483.

"This is fantastic news and will benefit not only plans for much needed new housing in the area but also plans for a new employment park," says Councillor Charmley.

"Those new businesses that come to the site will need a workforce so the housing and employment land go hand-in-hand."

Mr Holt says the investment is certainly welcome, but warns that even if the Government meets its target of 300,000 new homes every year, there is no guarantee they will be the properties which people need in the areas where they want them.

He also says this must not come at the expense of the maintenance and repairs for existing infrastructure.

There are no simple problems to the housing shortage, says Wayne Holt

"Historically, politicians have appeared infatuated with ‘mega-projects’ such as HS2, so it is refreshing to see smaller, lower profile initiatives being recognised as equally important," says Mr Holt.

"It’s refreshing to hear the government’s plans to invest heavily in infrastructure to get property developments moving, but people must realise there is no quick fix to this extremely complex housing crisis."

Mr Holt says the situation is not helped by some of the simplistic talk that surrounds the housing shortage.

"Suggestions that everything will be resolved if 300,000 houses are built per year are wide of the mark," he says.

Paradoxically, he says setting house-building targets can actually make the problem worse.

The Government has set a target for building 300,000 new homes every year

"It is important to remember that there are plenty of cities, including London, Birmingham and Manchester, which are not ‘at capacity’.

"The issue is many cities are over-supplied with homes that are simply too expensive.

"I certainly won’t be the first to say this, it is affordable housing that is required. The problem is, these are also the least profitable properties for developers to build."

Mr Holt says most local authority housing policies specify that 30 per cent of homes in a development should be "affordable", that is available for a below-market rent to people who meet certain criteria.

The problem with house-building targets is, he says, that developers know that local councils are under pressure to meet them.

"It’s all-to-easy for developers to refuse to start construction until the council reduces the number of affordable homes included in the final proposal," he says.

The character of our countryside

But even if there was a major expansion in affordable housing in high-demand areas, it would simply fuel demand from across the country.

"If you built 10,000 truly affordable homes in the UK’s major cities, you would have a queue which is exponential to this number, as all in the UK can go for these homes making the demand for these properties extremely high and way outstripping supply."

The other difficulty is the seemingly never-ending debate about balancing the need for housing with the need to preserve the character of our countryside, something that is particularly pertinent in a rural county such as Shropshire.

"I note that Mr Javid has warned Nimby objectors that the Government is 'not going to be their friend'," he says.

"I agree that ‘not in my backyard’ protestors can sometimes hold up developments unnecessarily and that can be frustrating.

"However, it is also important that greenbelt areas are discouraged from development until existing brownfield areas and associated infrastructure has been exhausted.

"The Government needs a collective strategy to ensure the country does not lose coveted green space."

He warns that there is no "silver bullet" to solve the housing shortage, but rather says it will can only be tackled by forensic examination of all the different problems which combine to create the crisis.

And people should be realistic in their expectations.

"This is a long-term problem and there really is no easy solution," he says.

"Only by addressing each individual aspect of the puzzle will we reach a point where there is sufficient housing in this country.

"But that is a long, long way off."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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