Our new SussexWorld campaign: Time to act on unsustainable housing targets and protect our beautiful green spaces

Today SussexWorld – and all the newspaper titles it comprises – calls for action to protect our beautiful county from unsustainable housing demands.

A resident holds up a placard at a recent housing protest in Sussex
A resident holds up a placard at a recent housing protest in Sussex

Our councils are facing huge pressure to deliver on the government’s housing targets.

They are often impossible to achieve without concreting over vast areas of green fields.

In some cases, even developing every blade of grass would still likely see councils fall short.

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We believe it is time for change. And in imploring the government to act, we are not alone in calling for change.

We are simply calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to deliver on his own words.

At the Conservative Party Conference speech in October, Mr Johnson hinted at the damaging effect of mass housebuilding on our region.

Land like this, in Worthing, is under threat of development

He noted the need for new homes but crucially: “Not on green fields, not just jammed in the South East but beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense.”

This is not the reality of the past. Nor is it the reality of the present – and the future brings little optimism.

We cannot point you to a significant shift in policy that indicates Mr Johnson’s vision is any closer to coming true.

Appeals continue to be allowed, councillors are still being advised they have to wave applications through or face the consequences and councils wait in vain for unrealistic housing targets to be reduced.

Green space in Sussex under threat of housing

Seeking a change in direction

We believe our councils need greater powers to determine their own housing needs and annual targets, free from the influence of centralised calculations.

We also feel our greenfield sites need stronger protection than national policies currently provide.

There are no easy solutions – but today we hope to open the dialogue and urge those in power on a national level to hear our plea.

We are not alone in questioning the status quo.

In January, one Sussex Conservative council leader – Kevin Jenkins, in Worthing – said: “I’m angry that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities refuses to see sense on this issue.

“It imposes completely unrealistic targets on us and then, when we can’t reach them, ties one hand behind our back when we seek to control development by weakening our planning powers.”

Infrastructure issues and lowering the bar for applications to be approved – problems aplenty

This problem is well documented.

Facing enormous housing targets heavily influenced by standard, centralised calculations, councils are too often set up to fail.

When developers predictably fail to keep pace with hefty housebuilding figures, perversely it is the local authorities which are penalised.

Suddenly, the bar to gaining permission for even the most speculative projects is greatly lowered.

Councils can plead ‘exceptional circumstances’ and argue for a lower housing target than the official calculations suggest – but judging by the figures Sussex authorities are wrangling with, this threshold is not a satisfactory safety net.

Yet there are circumstances in Sussex’s case which ought to be exceptional.

Space is at a premium. We cannot build homes in the Channel and the South Downs National Park to the north rightly has special protections.

Our infrastructure is sorely lacking and our environment is warning us enough is enough.

Large-scale development is effectively on hold in Horsham, parts of Chichester district and Crawley borough after Natural England warned late last year that developments were increasing the demand for water, thought to be harming internationally protected species with the potential of extinction in some cases.

The sheer, appalling scale of illegal discharges of sewage into sensitive Sussex watercourses by Southern Water between 2010 and 2015 saw it handed a record £90million fine last year. Click here for the full story

Residents question whether our sewerage system can accommodate current demand, let alone the effect of tens of thousands of new homes to crank up the pressure.

The A27 has been neglected by governments for decades. A bypass at notorious congestion hotspot Arundel is planned, yet funding at other pinch points across East and West Sussex is long awaited.

Lack of provision of key infrastructure such as GP surgeries and dentists is a constant thread which binds objections to planning applications countywide.

Again, severe problems exist now, let alone with the onslaught of housing on the horizon.

Too often mass housebuilding precedes the infrastructure needed to support it.

Sometimes the promised school, surgery or community centre never gets built and more housing is proposed in its place.

Enough is enough

Residents have had enough of this sorry situation.

They are tired of developments being approved against their wishes, with councils left with no choice but to approve controversial schemes because they cannot keep up with government expectations.

Many locals painstakingly crafted neighbourhood plans to shape the future of their communities under the perception of localism, only for their efforts to be trashed when national policies take precedence.

We still need homes

Of course, we are not saying all this should give councils carte blanche to pull up the drawbridge.

It is clear we cannot halt all housebuilding.

Our young people need affordable homes in which to live. But we reject the notion that simply building more homes will achieve this.

According to ONS data, average house prices in Sussex in 2020 were around 11 times average earnings. We do not believe large-scale housebuilding will sufficiently bridge this gulf, especially when developers are criticised for building only when it suits them, not when it suits us.

Local people are showing the way to a sustainable future. Community land trusts are popping up across the county, from Arundel to Hastings, with the objective of providing truly affordable housing for locals – not ‘affordable’ in the official sense, which has been criticised in the past as a misnomer.

Brownfield development opportunities must surely be exhausted before debates are had about major greenfield housebuilding.

CPRE’s State of Brownfield Report in 2020 showed there were 1,007 acres of abandoned brownfield sites in Sussex – enough to build at least 23,000 homes.

Green fields often prove cheaper to develop but surely it is not beyond us to find the key to unlocking more brownfield sites in order to ease the pressure on our open space.

What can you do to help?

We want to hear your thoughts about the housing situation in your part of Sussex.

We invite you to share your concerns and experiences – and what you would like to see change.

Or perhaps you agree with the current approach – tell us why you think it is the right way forward.

You can write to us here. We look forward to hearing your opinions and we will share as many as we can.