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Keeping The Benefit Local

Tony Abel 1 sm

I always say that when we build new homes, we are not just creating new houses, but new communities as well, writes Tony Abel. 

What many people don’t realise is that this is literally true in almost every case – part of the process of being granted planning permission involves every house builder making a real, financial contribution to the local community.

The frustration for us all - house builders and local residents alike – is that in many cases the local community sees very little benefit from this cash, even though its purpose is to support and improve the local infrastructure.

Generally, builders must pay what is called a Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL).  This is a substantial sum, in many cases running into four figures for each new home built.  Some developers complain about having to pay this; we don’t, because we live and work in the communities where we are building new homes, and so we take our responsibility to the wider society seriously.

If by building new homes, we can make a contribution to the provision of education in the local primary school, for example, then that’s great.  Houses can’t exist in isolation, they are part of the whole structure of society, and we happily accept our part in supporting that.

The trouble is that much of the CIL doesn’t go to the local community at all.  It often disappears into a central black hole, and is used to shore up infrastructure projects which are frequently many miles from the community in which we are building, and which offer little or no benefit to the people who live there.

Perhaps this is why some people struggle to see the benefit of new homes in their communities.  Despite the fact that these often bring much-needed extra children for the local school roll, new public open spaces and play areas, and energy-efficient homes which reduce the average environmental impact across the whole community, when the money which comes attached to new developments vanishes from the local economy, you can understand why local people can feel aggrieved.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  In Breckland, for example, the old system of Section 106 agreements still exists, which unlike the CIL, tends to mean that financial contributions from house builders are used for the purpose they were intended for – in the local community.  This may not entirely remove opposition to new development, but it does at least make a clear link between such development and wider community benefit.

At the moment the money paid as CIL is split between the county council, the district council and the parish council – but the vast majority goes to the county’s coffers, with a tiny proportion ending up in truly local hands.  Perhaps it’s time to rebalance this, with a greater share allocated for truly local spending.

In the end, we often end up supporting local community initiatives on a voluntary basis.  Unfortunately, big national firms are less likely to do this, and so until the way CIL monies are shared out is reformed, the opportunity for local communities to see the whole benefit of new housing is an opportunity missed.