Your views: rural housing development, who decides?

Image caption,
Some have questioned whether any house-building projects could get 90% of support from locals

The government wants to bring in local referendums on new housing schemes in England, which would have to gain a 80-90% yes vote to get the go-ahead. It says it's only right that schemes affecting residents have "overwhelming" support.

But rural campaigners say such a system could tear village communities apart, and many believe such a high threshold for support is unrealistic. They are concerned a small number of "nimby" opposers could block a scheme with ease.

Village-dwelling BBC News website readers have been getting in touch with their views; a selection is below.

'Trust villagers to do what's best'

Jeni Robinson said she was offended by some commentators who had suggested villagers were not capable of making the right decisions for their area.

Mrs Robinson, 67, has lived in the West Sussex village of Easebourne, by Midhurst, for 26 years.

She says a referendum system would encourage locals to debate development issues and decide what is best for the village.

Image caption,
Jeni Robinson says more starter homes are needed, but developers often want to build expensive ones

"If you give people the responsiblity they will respond. No system is perfect but you have to trust people.

"At the moment most people feel they don't have a say. There are not many people making decisions for the majority," adds Mrs Robinson, who is retired.

She says she has no objection to affordable starter homes in Easebourne, adding that the village already has some and more are "desperately needed for young people".

A recent planning application in her road, to build three large expensive homes on a one-acre plot, was rejected after local opposition, she says.

"We all felt it was the wrong thing. It would have been better to have eight smaller homes there. The houses they proposed were going to be £1.3m each, it was ridiculous.

"We all know that rural communities need a good mix of ages and to infer that we are not capable of making those decisions and that we need people to make those decisions for us is simply not an accurate view.

"We all want what is best for our village and we who live in them know best."

Paul Dark, 55, is a teacher who has lived in Trunch, north Norfolk for 20 years. He says he feels sorry for young people in the village, as even a small bungalow costs £140,000, in an area where the average wage is £14,000.

But he says the referendum scheme would lead to biased results as there would be an active minority of people who did not want change, and people who were indifferent would not get involved.

"The council about seven years ago wanted to put up some social housing in the village. It went through the usual planning procedures and at the planning meeting there was about 30 people there.

"About 20 of these were people who objected to the plan, the others were just wives and husbands and that sort of thing. The only people who bother to attend are those who would be affected by it."

Image caption,
Mr Dark said people would start to use parish councils if they felt they were important

Mr Dark said the council knew there was a need for social housing, so they went ahead and built the scheme.

He added: "What will happen if you have a referendum is you will get 30-40% turnout and of this, a large percentage are going to object because they are the people who are going to take time to do something about it. You're not going to get a turnout of 80%."

Mr Dark says if parish councils were seen as being important, people would start to use them. "At the moment they are seen as irrelevant. The parish council approach would be a lot better, but saying that, at the moment the make-up of the parish council doesn't reflect the area as a whole.

"If it started taking on these responsibilities you would get a better turn-out and people would get more active."

He adds that the county council would still need to take charge on bigger planning issues such as drug rehibilitation centres, as no locals would chose to have them in their area, but they have to go somewhere.

An ex-parish councillor from a village in Oxfordshire has said he left the position because he felt "bitter" and "disillusioned" that some councillors appeared to be acting in favour of developers and not in the best interests of the villagers.

He did not want to be named, because he still lives in the village in which he served on the local authority.

He supports the idea of a referendum, because it would give more power back to the people, taking it out of the hands of the few.

Many locals did not get involved with the current system, he said, because they either felt local councillors would not serve villagers' interests, or because they believed the decision had already been made at district or town council level.

"You would get some councillors living in one part of the parish and making decisions about another part. They are 'nimbys' - we all are.

"They wouldn't want something in their back yard but they wouldn't mind it a mile down the road."

He said parish councils were often unrepresentative because so few people wanted to stand for election.

"You end up with the people who are not necessarily the most popular or supported people in the community. It's just that they are willing to give up their time.

"They will elect anyone who is willing and doesn't have a criminal record. But you have no idea about the morals of that person, they have too much power."

"A referendum would mean it was a decision of the whole community and not a selected few," he added.

Cliff Jackson and many of his fellow villagers in the Essex village of St Osyth are battling plans to build 164 houses in their village. The homes would be built on land owned by - and adjacent to - a heritage estate, St Osyth Priory, which contains 22 listed buildings.

Owners the Sergeant family are planning on building the homes in order to fund restoration of the Priory, and say it is necessary to protect its long-term future.

They are working with English Heritage which has a policy that enables some developments to be built outside of normal planning rules in order to conserve heritage assets.

But Mr Jackson, 55, who is managing director of his own acoustics firm, says there is widespread dismay at the intention to build so many homes, and villagers have established a campaign to fight the move.

They have raised funds, put banners up in the village, distributed car stickers, set up a website and are hoping to go on a protest march when the planning application is submitted.

"But we have spoken to other villagers and we know there are other people in similar situations who have fought and screamed and pushed and shoved, but have lost. We are really worried that under the current system we could lose this.

"But if we had a referendum that would be the end of it. We could get 99% voting against this plan," he says, adding that villagers believe the final number of houses could be as many as 3-400, if the developer needs more money to complete the restoration plan.

"We live in a democracy and it is supposed to serve the majority. If we choose to live in a village, why should someone be able to march in a build a load of houses? If that was to happen we would all have to move because we wouldn't want to live here any more."

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