There is an extraordinary threat hanging over the villages in the Stevenage constituency, and it is a direct result both of Conservative policies and of their rejection of Labour policies. Our tale starts in London, but it ends in your back yard.

The threat arises because many properties in London are built, not as homes, but for their investment value. A considerable number of properties are even advertised for sale in Shanghai, Moscow or Hong Kong because billionaires in those countries would prefer to have real estate in the UK than to leave their money in a bank. This raises the price of all properties in London, and that makes it attractive for people in London to sell and purchase a cheaper (but still expensive) house in Hertfordshire. The London Bubble creates a smaller, but significant, housing bubble in Hertfordshire. Land values and house prices rocket, and the result is significant damage to the fabric of village life.

Where does this lead to? It leads to a huge demand for homes in our area in the high price bracket, and it makes it very attractive for the owners of land to get planning permission for development.

How does the London Bubble affect villagers?

One aspect of village life is that we have centres of the community – the church, the pub, the social club, allotments, sports fields, homes for the elderly, and the café at the local garden centre. Where land on which these stand is in private hands, or even sometimes when these are owned by the public sector, it is tempting for the owner to gain lots of cash by selling them off for development.

Removal of Pubs

Pubs are particularly vulnerable to closure for development because they usually have a car park, and you’ve only got to see the overdeveloped flats in the car park of what used to be the Eagle and Child in Whitwell to see the outcome. Meanwhile, Knebworth has lost its pubs, although thankfully the owner of the Lytton Arms has not yet gone with the trend. In Aston, the purchase of the Rose and Crown has blighted the centre of the village, and while the villagers have fought as hard as can be to protect the character of the village, since 2013 the government has shown a very strong bias in favour of the right of land owners.

Removal of Homes for the Elderly

Many places where elderly people rent property were built with a view to the residents enjoying a pleasant garden. But that land is worth a lot in development terms – so there are now plans for residents of the Bury in Codicote to be evicted, with 9 acres of land sold for development. When the council set up its joint partnership with the then excellent Johnny Johnson Trust, few could have anticipated this is how it would have this dismal end. But market forces and the London Bubble rule.

Removal of Sports Facilities

Many villagers in the rural part of Stevenage use the Gosling stadium in Welwyn Garden City. The land was in the public sector, it was privatised but loads of assurances were given about the retention and maintenance of an excellent and important set of sports facilities, including an excellent dry ski slope. But the centre is now a pale shadow of its former self as the owners prepare to turn over more and more of the land to housing.

 Removal of the Green Belt

Many people enjoy village life because it has the great benefit of ready access to the countryside, and green belt legislation stemming from the far-sighted Labour policies enshrined in the Town and Country Planning Act (1947) sought to bring these befits to the population at large. But the Housing Bubble shreds the green belt, and a concerted war against “planning” by successive Conservative governments in the last 40 years mean that many of our villagers are seeing the countryside being removed ever further from where they live, while “ribbon development” of the sort that destroyed one of the most beautiful counties in England in the 1930s (Middlesex) is now happening here. The government has been very keen to allow landowners (like John Hodge, resident elsewhere but landowner in Hertfordshire, twice the beneficiary of permissions to build in the green belt over a 25 year period) to rake in huge profits from simply ceasing to treat farmland as farmland.

Removal of Allotments

Allotments afford many people considerable satisfaction, and the decision to release them for development generates considerable heartache. But the land is worth a lot of money, and council budgets have been squeezed to the bone so they are always looking for way to sell off assets to fund them through another round of cuts. It proved surprisingly easy for (Conservative controlled) North Herts Council to remove allotment holders in Whitwell, this setting a dangerous precedent.

Removal of Places to Walk

While thankfully our public footpaths are not yet under threat, even though it requires land, many places to walk are not officially designated footpaths. The Labour government sought to correct this through a “right to roam” Act, whereby land which has historically been used for countryside access could get registered. The snag was the custodians of the legislation are the highways authority, Conservative-controlled Herts County Council, and they have made it clear they don’t like it much, perhaps because they are many of them large-scale landowners themselves. In Codicote a wood which has been walked on for 80 years is now all fenced off, cameras are focused on people walking near it, and to connect two footpaths walkers now have to go on a very dangerous bit of road. Signatures objecting to all of this totalling 1800 walker-years were just ignored by the County Council. Woods are not usually fenced off, yet, but the advantage of doing so for the landowner is that he can prepare it for… yes, you’ve got it … planning permission, without paying any attention to historic public use. And it’s clear from the records that in the rural areas of Stevenage which are not protected by Labour-controlled Stevenage Borough Council, applicants will know they are knocking on an open door when they ask “Conservative” authorities to remove another area of countryside. They really don’t believe in planning!

Removal of Housing Hope for the Young

The housing developments which are turning our villages into towns are not targeted at where it is really needed – the young people of our area, because the Bubble generates prices out of the reach of any youngsters but those who have had a substantial inheritance.  They sometimes say the developments have 20% “affordable homes”, but then they define affordability at 80% of the average price in an area. 80% of £400,000 is still £320,000, which is 13 times the average income: There is nothing affordable about that. They also always build the most expensive houses first, and then it frequently happens that they seem unable to complete a development by building the houses on which they will make the least return. There really is no way to secure that even this paltry attempt to make some property affordable works.

Removal of Parkland

The pressure to turn land into building land affects also local councils. Gresley Park serves Aston End and Eastern Stevenage, but it has the misfortune to be in the grip of Conservative-controlled East Herts council – so of course they want to build on it. Those affected might even think that it is Stevenage Council’s plan; but it isn’t.

Removal of Libraries

All over Hertfordshire there is a skeleton library service where once there was a marvellous facility. First they close it for a considerable portion of the week, then they staff it only with volunteers, and finally they get rid of it, on the grounds that it is barely used when we all know that is because it is barely open. The library at Welwyn, once a vital facility for those at the south end of the constituency, is a considerable way along this pathway, and we fear that the plans for Knebworth will contract the service, because that is the direction of travel. Libraries are primarily the responsibility of Conservative-controlled Herts County Council, which is why even in Stevenage the libraries have become a poor facility for such a large population. As libraries close all over the country, land is released for further expensive housing.

In this leaflet we have dealt with only one issue – the London Bubble and its consequences for the villages in the Stevenage constituency who are not protected by Labour-controlled Stevenage Council.

What would Labour Do? The following list is not exhaustive, but it shows we are not just going to let market forces destroy our countryside and the hopes of the younger generation.

  1. We actually commend the late efforts by Philip Hammond to stop councils charging low council tax (a 50% rebate!) on unoccupied properties, which leads to evermore unnecessary building. But those efforts largely failed. Many councils including North Herts and East Herts have continued to treat those who treat property merely as an investment, and who leave homes empty, with kid gloves. There is also welcome legislation to charge unoccupied properties 200% of standard council tax, to make them less attractive to keep empty as financial instruments, but the take-up of this is abysmal. Meanwhile young people pay sky-high rents and they can’t get housing at a sensible price – for rent or purchase. The removal of incentives to keep houses and flats empty is vital.
  2. Councils in England have 8 council tax bands, with the top one “H” for houses which were worth £320,000 in 1991. This means that many of the houses of those with assets of one thousand million pounds are paying council tax at a much lower percentage of their home’s value than hard-working people with just a single modest home. This is a grotesque injustice. It also provides another incentive for the billionaires from abroad to acquire UK property. Many Russian oligarchs target Westminster, for instance, where the council gets so much money from car parking at its meters that it can levy a really low tax. The billionaires are very grateful that we are idiots. What we need is revaluation at the top end, and we need council tax bands beyond “H” which the Welsh government (under Labour) has already done. If you ask, what the heck have the billionaires purchasing in Westminster to do with me and my village, please look back at the rest of this leaflet!
  3. We would ensure subsidies for truly affordable housing, just as Labour governments have done in the past, so that young people and young families can stop being part of the revenue stream for those who profit from the unaffordability of houses for those who don’t get a large inheritance.
  4. We have always prioritised building on “brownfield” sites, to protect the green belt, but those councils who have cosy relationships with landowners have been loath to do the work to identify such sites. Using these sites requires more investment than the green fields, because there has to be site clearance, detoxification, and so on, and to generate affordable homes this requires a contribution from government. Councils agree they have had very stretched resources but to protect our environment and to generate the homes we really need this work must be done. We do need housing, but it needs to be in a place and at a price which young people who don’t inherit can afford.
  5. Labour has tried in the past to get the windfall gains that come from the granting of planning permissions to be shared between owner and community, including a Community Land Act in the late 1970s. That Act became a dead letter after the 1979 election. We need to eliminate a substantial amount of the motivation landowners have to seek to erode our cherished rural assets.

We have dwelt in this leaflet on only one connected set of reasons why a village person locally might consider a vote for Jill Borcherds, the Labour candidate for Stevenage.

There are of course many other reasons why a vote for a Labour MP would improve things for those of us who live in a village.

We hope also that you will Consider Young People in Your Vote.

Young people see their sports facilities removed and put to housing. While they lose their sports facilities, the vast majority of them do not stand of chance of benefiting from the new developments.

Labour has appropriate policies about the development of housing for young people, and for enhancing and retaining the natural environment. This is not new: It dates back to the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, and that is where the green belt came from.

If you have issues you wish to discuss, we hope you will talk to our canvassers or you can contact us at contact@stevenagelabour.org

Tony McWalter
Former MP
Has given evidence at 6 public enquiries to protect green and recreational spaces.

Thank you for giving our case consideration by reading this. In considering how you are going to vote, we hope that at the very least we have given you some food for thought.

Why a Vote for the Conservatives threatens village life
Why a Vote for the Conservatives threatens village life
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