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This month with Martin Horwood MP for Cheltenham

IF YOU CARE ABOUT YOUR LOCAL ENVIRONMENT, READ THIS. This month’s column concerns some really tedious-sounding documents – the Joint Core Strategy, the Regional Spatial Strategy, the National Planning Policy Framework. Your eyelids may be drooping already but read on! This really matters. Those green fields you see every day may all be at risk from these dangerously dull-sounding documents.

The South West Regional Spatial Strategy – or RSS – was Labour’s plan based on the belief that only by building stupendous numbers of new houses could we even slightly cool the boiling housing market of the noughties. It generated a staggering 35,000 protests from horrified local residents. In the end, recession did the job for us. The price boom was really caused by irresponsible lending by the banks (did they get anything right?) and a property market that was more about making money than living in things. Bad property debts worldwide were a key cause of the financial crash.

The RSS is dead now but the developers want the boom times back. To politicians, they argue that there’s a universal housing shortage that’s hurting first-time buyers. To their investors, by the way, they praise ‘highly desirable’ market housing on ‘greenfield’ locations and ‘lower reliance’ on first time buyers! In fact – shock news – there are still a million more homes in this country than there are households. The problem always is local supply and demand. People want to live in towns like Cheltenham because it has good schools, well-paid jobs, a lovely town centre, great shops and, er, beautiful countryside close to where people live. So demand is insatiable and prices relatively high. And have remained high despite swathes of countryside being built on over past decades. But endless growth is unsustainable. The gaps are closing between Cheltenham and Gloucester and Bishop’s Cleeve. Remaining green spaces outside the Cotswold Area of Natural Beauty are under threat from plans for tens of thousands of expensive market houses that wouldn’t help any of the 3,000 people on Cheltenham’s housing waiting list.

At national level, a small war was fought by green groups (and yours truly, amongst other MPs) to produce a new National Policy Planning Framework that allowed local councils to balance social and environmental impacts against the demands of growth. But local planners are proving hard to persuade. Under the coalition’s localist approach, the argument has moved back home. Cheltenham Borough Council – which is also, by the way, building the first much needed social housing for rent in decades on ‘brownfield’ sites in town – has resisted the Greenfield developers so far but it has to agree a Joint Core Strategy with Gloucester and Tewkesbury councils who still seem to be gung ho for growth. Huge planning applications are imminent, starting in Leckhampton, and may try to pre-empt the whole process.

There are local groups leading the fight back. If you want to join them, visit www.leglag.org.uk and http://savethecountryside.wordpress.com – but be quick!

martin@martinhorwood.net; www.martinhorwood.net; @MartinChelt