Opinion: Eco-Towns – what about social justice?

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The Eco Towns motion passed at the Liberal Democrat conference was flawed: in seeking to oppose centrally imposed Eco-Towns the policy centrally imposed a rigid policy across the country, with no regard for local circumstances.

In my hometown of Oxford we have some of the worst housing problems in the country. I myself was homeless only eight years ago, sleeping in the city’s homeless shelter for young people. I’ve also been at the sharp end of trying to solve the crisis, as Oxford city council’s housing portfolio holder from 2006 until this May.

The reality is that the housing crisis in Oxford is destroying lives. We have thousands of people on the waiting list, and thousands more in private sector accomodation not even on the list. We have hideous problems of overcrowding, homeless shelters and hostels that are regularly full, with few homes free for people to move off the streets. The average waiting time for larger affordable homes is 10 years. Locally produced estimates of housing need show that we need at least 1700 new affordable homes every year just to keep pace with demand, let alone tackle the backlog. Remember: behind these statistics are real human lives, real tragedies.

What of the private sector? Average house prices are well over £300,000, even in these days of the credit crunch. For local young people like myself, it’s not so much a case of not being able to get onto the housing ladder, more that we’re so far off it that we can’t even see the bottom rung.

The rental market is defunct. Landlords have been able to do what they please as a captive audience of students and young professionals have little choice. There are measures we can take, and did, such as becoming the first council in the country to apply for extra powers from the Government to tackle dodgy landlords.

There are also things that can be done nationally. Regeneration of regional economies and cities, allowing local government the power to to set business rates thereby attracting new industries and proper investment in high speed rail can drive economic growth in other areas, relieving some of the pressure on the South East.

Ultimately, however, we can’t escape the fact that we need more housing, now, to tackle the crisis. We’re very good at saying this as a party but we’re not so good at saying where it should go. In Oxford we have used nearly all the brownfield sites. That’s the reality.

Now we’ve long held the view that we should have a wholescale review of the greenbelt around Oxford in order to find the most sustainable solution for housing, and protect the environment for another generation. I still hold this view, but right now the window is closing. If we do not get the review we so desperately need, thousands of people will still need our help.

The Tories don’t recognise the problem. So next time David Cameron wants to lecture the poor from his ivory tower he should remember this: in Oxford, the biggest cause for poverty, the biggest barrier to equality of opportunity, the biggest barrier to social mobility, is the crippling housing crisis. It is his neighbouring Tory MPs, the councillors in his constituency, and he himself who fight any development they can see with such ferocity. For people in Oxford the fault of their poverty is not their own, but it is David Cameron’s.

Meanwhile Labour simply do not care about the environment and will happily dismantle the Greenbelt at will. So it is left to us to come up with a realistic solution.

Now we had two eco-towns put forward for the shortlist in Oxfordshire. One was well worked out, on a brownfield site and had some support locally, but was in the Greenbelt (Shipton Quarry). The other, whilst bigger, was fraught with difficulties, lacking detail and generated huge hostility (Weston Otmoor). Which one do you think Gordon chose for the shortlist? The one that could have played a part in solving the crisis, or the one that really hacked everyone off?

If Weston Otmoor runs into problems, and Shipton Quarry comes back on the agenda, which is looking like a possibility, the motion passed by conference would stop us from accepting part of the solution. It would also deny any possibility of the potential urban extension at the south of the city.

I know, from my personal experience, that a life on the streets is a life devoid of liberty, devoid of equality of opportunity and devoid of social justice. We have adopted a one-size-fits-all policy that does not fit Oxford. It may be right for many areas of the country, but it is simply not justifiable in the homeless shelters of my city or to the thousands of families trapped by Oxford’s housing crisis. The supporters of this motion claimed they were not NIMBYs or BANANAs. But not once did I hear anyone in the debate talk about housing need and social justice.

So I ask them simply this. Where do we put the houses when the brownfield sites have run out?

* Patrick Murray is a Liberal Democrat city councillor in Oxford, and prospective parliamentary candidate for Reading West.

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3 Comments

  • It is really good to see someone talking about the real cost of preserving every green space: homelessness and poor housing, particularly for the young. It is a shame that such issues were not mentioned in the debates.

    The only thing I take issue with is Patrick’s claim that “Meanwhile Labour simply do not care about the environment and will happily dismantle the Greenbelt at will”. As we have seen over the last ten years, Labour have been prepared to see people like Patrick suffer dreadfully rather than relax/move/alter the greenbelt.

    As Patrick says, any party that claims to support human freedom has to be serious about the need – sometimes – to build more houses on land that was once agricultural. I wish Patrick well, in every sense.

  • Richard Coe 17th Sep '08 - 9:10pm

    Ah but this costs money, and the posh boys don’t want to pay more tax – they think people would rather have £20 a month less tax than any social provision.

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