As someone who has campaigned hard against Leeds City Council’s dangerous housing plans, alongside many community groups and Conservative councillors, it is good news that the council are finally reconsidering their unrealistic target and the related Site Allocation Plan which removes 73 Green Belt sites from around Leeds in order to build more than 12,481 houses.
But the council have serious questions to answer as to why they have ignored so many local people for so long.
Local groups, with Conservative councillors and MPs, have consistently made the point that this high target was not in line with official population data, was not deliverable, and would wipe out swathes of our precious Green Belt forever - Green Belt put there to ensure urban regeneration rather than sprawl in industrial areas.
The Labour-run council turned down an offer by the government inspector in 2014 to work with them on these targets, an offer made because independent ONS population and household forecasts emerging from the 2011 Census were far lower than the figures that the Council had been used.
The Council had many opportunities to look again at the target and preserve our important environment but instead ploughed on regardless, and took no notice of residents’ concerns.
The lead member for planning, Richard Lewis, went as far as to describe consultation with residents as “procedural nonsense”.
Last week, the government released their own assessment of housing need for Local Authorities across the England and for Leeds they calculate that 42,000 new houses need to be built (up to 2028) – less than two thirds of the Council’s target of 70,000.
This will allow us to focus on building the type of houses we all know we need, whilst preserving an environment that has allowed Leeds to be referred to as the “Green City”.
Our environment in West Yorkshire’s concentrated heartlands is important for so many things, flood management, carbon capture, recreation, mental wellbeing, and biodiversity to name just a few.
When I served as a Leeds City Councillor in 2008, the then Labour government imposed housing targets on the city, nearly doubling the number of properties that needed to be built, overnight from 2,260pa, to 4,300pa between 2008 - 2026. After the 2010 General Election, when the Conservative government came to power in coalition, central targets were scrapped; the decision on how many houses to build was handed back to Local Authorities who, it was thought, would understand local need better.
Sadly, our Labour-run Council continually failed to calculate realistic housing need. The Local Plan 2012-2028 continued with the annual target of 4,375 houses per annum in the face of all emerging evidence that it was not needed.
The land supply for such a sea change in housing had been planned back in 2008 to include Green Belt, and despite acres of land still fulfilling statutory Green Belt purpose, such as separating our towns and preventing urban sprawl, a Site Allocation Plan was put together from 2013 which threatened the wellbeing of many communities
This led go numerous community groups being formed to campaign against the Council’s damaging targetand prove why the Green Belt still had value for sustainability.
It’s a huge shame that the council refused to listen to them and are now only reconsidering the target because the Government have published more realistic data.
Groups like WARD, Aireborough Neighbourhood Development Forum, Save Leeds Greenbelt, RGAG and the Yorkshire Greenspace Alliance together with national groups such as CPRE, should be commended for all their hard work.
They should be proud of what they have achieved. What has kept them going, they tell me, is the justice of the situation they have tried to relate back to the Council.
Now is the time for Leeds City Council to listen to us all, revise the target and bring forward a Local Planthat ensures local people have the housing they need, in an environment where our beneficial natural habitat can be conserved too.
In addition, they should use the detailed assessments from groups like the Aireborough Neighbourhood Forum and others so that the result is quality neighbourhood planning with REAL local involvement – that is a crucial part of the Neighbourhood Planning the 2010 Government implemented .
It’s good news that the Council are finally listening, although there is still a long way to go. The question remains as to why they didn’t take all those opportunities they had to listen before, and why they insist on playing politics with our homes.
I for one will keep the pressure on Leeds City Council until these plans are replaced with something realistic and sustainable that communities can agree with.