Chris Blythe: Country estates hold key to social housing

3 September 2012

Chris Blythe: blindingly obvious

A recent report by the think tank Policy Exchange suggested selling off the most valuable council houses and reinvesting the money in building new units. Sell one property for £1m and build three in its place. As the housing minister Grant Shapps said, it’s “blindingly obvious”. I would not disagree. But there is something else which is also blindingly obvious too.

My “hobby” gives me an opportunity of a bird’s eye view of the countryside every weekend. As a flying instructor I get a fantastic view of the landscape and to see it change month by month as the seasons pass is a real privilege. Right now the heathland in north Surrey, south Berkshire and east Hampshire is turning into a spectacular purple as the heather comes into flower. The old runway at the former Greenham Common airbase is long gone (probably as hardcore into the M25) and has returned to heathland very quickly.

The most consistent comment I get when I take anyone up on a trial lesson is how green everywhere is. There is genuine surprise at the sheer amount of countryside. Like most of us they have been conditioned into believing that the countryside has been built over and there is precious little left and so we must protect what’s left.

As we bimble slowly over the countryside at 2000ft you do get a cracking view of what’s going on. Suburbia is full of swimming pools, ranging from big tubs to quite sizeable affairs. A bit further out there are small estates, with a pool and a tennis court, sometimes in a small wood. Then there are the big estates ranging from country houses to stately homes where the land attached dwarfs the big house.  Whilst development around these properties seems to have stopped about 100 years ago the biggest countryside developments seem to be golf courses where each fairway and hole is the equivalent of a school playing field.

It’s without doubt the stately homes and country estates which draw most comment. They represent a considerable amount of development in the past, especially where the natural landscape has been changed. These estates are at the heart of rural England. Their current owners and operators were some of the most vocal opponents of the Coalition’s changes in the planning laws and used a fair bit of arm twisting to blunt the proposals. It always struck me that the originators of these grand estates never had to contend with planning laws in the first place. The aim was to show off and out do the duke or earl down the road. Any opposition was limited and most likely dealt with pretty ruthlessly.

There is a certain amount of irony that democratic processes are being used to preserve places which were the antithesis of democracy when built.

So let’s get back to the blindingly obvious then. Why not take a few acres of land from all these estates to expand the potential for social housing, especially in the countryside where all agree that low-cost housing is desperately needed to retain a viable rural life.

At the same time let’s give up a small amount of green belt on the fringe of the suburbs. This is much better than selling off school playing fields.

In truth you would not notice any difference, believe me.


I believe that the majority of terraced housing constructed prior to 1919 and afterwards should be modernised (not demolished) by adding a little TLC. This housing is still perfectly serviceable and just needs new kitchens / bathrooms and perhaps a reroof where necessary and could be brought back into good use. The governments Pathfinder scheme covered demolition of the units and clearly didn't consider the amount of 'embedded' energy in these units. A substantial number of Local Authorities are now left with a problem of numbers of CPO housing and no money to do anything with them. I've heard Derby Council are consideribfg offering houses for sale at £1:00 each with the offer of improvement monies and the condition that individuals have to live in the house for a minimum of 5yrs. This is a solition I wouldn't chose; I would offer housing at market value with possible loans and conditions etc. There are thousands of units in this state and they desperately need bringing back into use. I don't think the answer is as George Clarks suggestion concerning the Government loan would be right. Bring the terraced properties back into use and house more families.

stephen hall, 13 September 2012

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