Have We Got Housing All Wrong?

Before Greenpeace, before Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain , the South Hams saw the beginning of a pioneering conservation charity.

It’s not big and shouty, but it gets things done.

The South Hams Society came into being in 1961 to protect the newly designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Even then it was realised that the natural charms of our Devon hamlets, lanes and fields were under threat from development. Sixty two years on, that threat has grown, thanks to rising property prices, a complex planning system, the influx of wealthy urbanites and the profit motive of house builders. “ The place is suffering in some sense death by a thousand cuts – about 500 cuts have been made but there’s another 500 to go so it’s worth fighting to stop it,” says Richard Howell, chair of the SHS.

Over developed

We’re chatting in his restored farmhouse which – and there’s no other word for it – nestles in the bosomy embrace of an AONB. The narrow road down is running with water from the sodden fields. The view from his house – bought 20 years ago as a toadstool infested wreck – is magnificent. Just what he is working to protect. He agrees there is a housing crisis and the Society is not against development – just the wrong type in the wrong place, like the hills overlooking Dartmouth. He believes Totnes and Dartington are already over developed. The real crisis is that the thousands of new homes that have been built are not affordable for local people.

Richard Howell

Ever increasing disparity

It used to be the case that to get a mortgage, you borrowed 3 to 4 times your annual income to buy a house. Now, in the South Hams, you would need 12.5 to 13 times annual income (which averages here about £30,000) to buy a house for under £400,000, he explains. So, is it the developers’ fault we aren’t getting the homes we need, social homes for locals? “Not really, they are obviously public companies who have shareholders so they are building to make money. You can’t stop that but you can decide where you allow this housing to be built. There is a considerable need for community land trusts. And for councils to start building again. They weren’t allowed to for a while, but now they can. Instead of investing in commercial property ventures.” Richard says.

Totnes and Dartington are already over developed

Commercial ventures which, in some cases in the UK, have failed massively, bankrupting local authorities. “ If they had spent it on social housing it would have been a better investment and provided much needed homes.” He explains that South Hams District Council – the planning authority – is, he believes, incentivised to allow house building by the New Homes Bonus, which annually brings in around £400,000 from the Government. Which is a sizeable chunk of the current total budget of around £10.5 million. He points out that the South Hams’ population would be declining, if it weren’t for people –retirees mostly, with wealth from house sales – moving in. So the houses developers want to build are aimed at them – and they’ve exploited that demand rather well. In fact South Hams has already filled its current housing target, because four and a half thousand dwellings have already been built. More than that, it has over-filled the target because another four and a half thousand have been consented. But , because a number of building sites are so-called  “windfall” land – bits outside the local plan agreement – they don’t count towards the target!

The South Hams – image courtesy

Need versus desire

So where are the people working in tourism and hospitality – around a third of the economy – going to live? Rentals? Not so much. Richard says the number of second homes, short term lets and holiday lets should be controlled through the planning system. “If you want to change from residential to holiday lets or long term rental to short term, you should have to get planning permission.” Richard isn’t in favour of throwing soup at paintings or lying down on roads, but he says his cousin Simon Fairley – the co-founder of The Ecologist Magazine and the man who brought scything back into fashion – talks of the “radical flank” effect, where the outrageous stunts make the quieter opposition seem more reasonable. Even so, Richard reveals that they sometimes get abuse on social media – “a few trolls”, he smiles.

Getting things done

So in this quiet way, the Society is working on the behalf of all of us who want to protect the beauty and character of the South Hams and protect the economy which results from the tourists coming to admire it. They are volunteers who diligently examine planning applications and challenge those they think are wrong. “The leader of our planning team is a former engineer who knows more about planning than the average planner in SHDC does. He is excellent. We are just a range of people who live here who think it matters what happens.

“Politicians are just like the rest of us, they like to be loved…”

One recent case highlights how their terrier-like digging gets results. In the case of one major development, they discovered that a crucial clause in a section 106 agreement was altered, to the benefit of the developer and at a cost to residents, on the say-so on just ONE councillor. This is legal, but is it above board? “Yes it’s legal but obviously its not above board because no bugger knew what
was going on until our planning lead checked the original 106 agreement and the variance documentation.” Richard said. The Society raised the issue with the council, and the rules have now been amended to ensure any such changes to major developments in the future are signed off by both the ward councillor and the development committee chair. For Richard, the problem here was the lack of democratic accountability and transparency.

So what can we do to protest against the wrong development in the wrong place? “There is strength in numbers , it gives us more clout– so join us! Politicians are just like the rest of us, they like to be loved, and the more people who object to something, the more they listen.

Find out more about South Hams Society here

Saving the countryside or holding back progress, feel free to comment below.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Scott Williams
Scott Williams
2 months ago

The South West is in reality on the frontline of Atlantic Storms (obviously) I do wonder how popular it will be to live in retirement here as the coming years see an exponential rise in storm amplitude due to climate breakdown – my prediction is that there’ll be mass grey migration out of the region… there’s signs of it happening already, at that point what happens to all this climate unready housing stock we have built by the estate load that’s not adapted to the coming Atlantic hurricanes? It all languishes empty and derelict I guess, just as much of the region did after the golden age of tourism in the 20s – that my grandparents generation of Cornishfolk would talk of, all those fading seaside towns – that they forgot to close down.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x