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How the planning system is creating ‘soulless’ estates as communities are promised facilities that never come

In Northstowe, 76 per cent of residents said they were fairly or very dissatisfied with facilities  (Getty)
In Northstowe, 76 per cent of residents said they were fairly or very dissatisfied with facilities (Getty)

Residents living on new housing estates have hit out at developers, councils and the government for failing to deliver vital local amenities that were promised at the planning stage.

Homeowners say newly completed estates are missing the GP surgeries, schools, green spaces and road improvements that major new developments are supposed to provide.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats blame successive Conservative administrations for what they describe as years of underfunding of local councils along with the cutting of regulations, which they say has left communities without key services.

The government insists it is tackling the issue, with new incentives for builders and councils.

Residents say reality often fails to live up to the promise of facilities (AFP via Getty)
Residents say reality often fails to live up to the promise of facilities (AFP via Getty)

But householders, including local amenities campaigners, say the UK is being left with “soulless” new estates that are bad for residents’ mental health and bad for the environment.

Have you been affected by this? Email jane.dalton@independent.co.uk

In a survey carried out by the Community Planning Alliance for The Independent, residents said affordable housing, GP surgeries, playgrounds, green spaces and road improvements are often missing from modern housing estates, despite having been promised.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) admits it does not have figures on how many developments are built where vital infrastructure is not included – so this is a rare indication of the extent of the problem.

In Frome, Somerset, householders are angry at the absence of a new school envisaged when 450 houses were built and marketed as “perfect for first-time buyers and growing families”. Land was even allocated for a school.

Persimmon Homes gave the council £784,446 towards a new primary school, but Somerset Council says existing schools have enough places.

Householder Jacqueline Simpson said: “Residents bought houses, and social housing also exists on site, all with the expectation of the nearby school, which would provide not only education for their children but also a social hub.”

She said children from Edmund Park have either a long walk or a car journey to other schools; there are no buses to the estate, which is on a narrow bend on a hill, and there is no bridge across the river, so getting to the railway station requires a walk of over half a mile.

“Residents rightly feel cheated. Recent developments in Frome have already put a strain on our health centre, dentists and schools, making it even more important to ensure that infrastructure is not just planned, but is actually provided on new estates,” she said.

A council spokesperson said that if it did not need the site for a school, it had to return both the land and the money to the developer, but the site could still potentially be used for other educational purposes “in discussion with the developers”. “As yet, no alternative plans have been discussed,” they said.

Builders work on a residential construction site in Paddock Wood (AFP via Getty)
Builders work on a residential construction site in Paddock Wood (AFP via Getty)

With millions of people already struggling to get GP appointments, new surgeries are often at the top of local residents’ wish lists. According to the British Medical Association, GPs have an average of 19 per cent more patients each than in 2015.

In Paddock Wood, Kent, several new developments, including the Foalhurst estate of more than 300 homes, have created unacceptable pressure on GP services, and a new school is desperately needed, according to local campaigners.

One resident, Adrian Pitts, said a patient survey at the nearest GP surgery to the estate noted pressure on appointments as a result of new developments.

“Doctors say they are doing many more weekly baby checks with the new families moving into the developments... so GPs’ time is even more pressed. The phone system is inundated before people get to triage, particularly on a Monday. And the centre has had to limit new patients.”

Land is reserved for a new primary school, he said, but it is not scheduled to open until September 2025, and residents had wanted a new wastewater treatment centre.

Even when developers contribute towards new facilities, it takes time for them to emerge, say critics of the system (Getty)
Even when developers contribute towards new facilities, it takes time for them to emerge, say critics of the system (Getty)

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council said that contributions towards local doctors’ surgeries had been secured, and that Kent County Council would deliver the school. Berkeley Homes said its site never included plans for a water treatment centre or a school. Southern Water said it was denied permission for a new pumping station so carried out network improvements instead.

At a 325-home estate called Foxcote in Cheadle, near Stockport, Greater Manchester, householders say they have been let down over a string of issues, including a flooded pathway and delays in installing promised traffic lights.

“The significant removal of hedgerows along Wilmslow Road is not in line with the original plans, leading to questions about who approved these changes,” said one resident, who asked to remain anonymous.

A Bloor Homes spokesperson said the company had made a significant financial contribution towards junction improvements, but that it was not responsible for carrying out the work or fixing the flooded pathway.

Any hedgerow removed would be reinstated, they said, while 216 bird and bat boxes have been installed, with more to come following ecologists’ advice on positioning.

Homeowners in the West Midlands suffered the stench of blocked sewage pipes when a new estate was left with inadequate sewerage, according to Labour MP John Spellar, who says the problem of unfinished work has soared in the past five years.

“These estates are often where people are buying their first house or first decent house, and they’ve stretched themselves to build a decent life for their families – and they’re being left with a nightmare. It causes huge stress on families and relationships, and makes lives miserable,” he said.

The Labour MP for Hemsworth, Jon Trickett, said schools in his constituency were already over capacity and the Victorian sewerage systems under strain, even before a 2,000-home development was built.

He said some developers had told him: “We’re not here to win a popularity contest, we’re here to build houses.”

Young buyers are ‘left with a nightmare’, says one MP (AFP via Getty)
Young buyers are ‘left with a nightmare’, says one MP (AFP via Getty)

Six years after the first homebuyers moved into England’s biggest new town, Northstowe, near Cambridge, they are still waiting for shops and GP surgeries. The development was 15 years in the planning, but early occupants dubbed it a “ghost town”.

The developers say a temporary community centre is open, together with outdoor recreation facilities, and that construction has started on an education campus.

Daniel Zeichner, shadow environment minister and MP for Cambridge, says he has consistently seen failures by developers to keep promises they made to win permission for developments.

“I have also seen endless examples of dreadfully poor standards, and a national housebuilder is knocking down newly built houses because they failed to put in the correct foundations.

“This has all happened because the Conservatives slashed regulations and standards.

“New communities have been left without facilities, and we are now paying the price in terms of social problems. [Michael] Gove’s attempt to blame councils is a desperate and sickening attempt to avoid responsibility for the problems he and his colleagues have caused.”

Gilston, Essex, will be a garden village, planned to help the housing crisis (Getty)
Gilston, Essex, will be a garden village, planned to help the housing crisis (Getty)

In a drive for more housebuilding, Mr Gove warned last year that councils blocking developments could be stripped of their planning powers.

The government will give local authorities three months to produce plans to meet housing needs in their area, and those that fail could have developments forced upon them.

Helen Morgan, the Liberal Democrats’ housing spokesperson, said: “It’s too easy for developers to get away with neglecting basic infrastructure like roads and drains, while also failing to contribute to local services like schools, surgeries and parks.

“Communities from North Shropshire to north London are crying out for affordable housing with proper infrastructure, but Michael Gove’s announcement will do nothing to build the right homes with the services that should come with them.”

The system allows developers to say, if they don’t get a 15-20 per cent profit, they can claim they can’t deliver half the things they promised

Rosie Pearson

Critics of the planning system highlight how developers often pay money to local authorities instead of providing amenities directly, so proposals may be accepted without specific plans for facilities. It’s up to councils to decide what to do with the money, which may not always be ringfenced for those services.

Rosie Pearson, chair of the Community Planning Alliance, says the issues are badly affecting people’s mental health. “If your area’s services and infrastructure are already overstretched or overwhelmed, it is extremely worrying when hundreds or thousands more residents might have to share them and create even greater pressure.”

She said it also affects young people looking for affordable homes, while an absence of public transport encourages long-term car use because once people are used to driving, they won’t later switch.

Campaigners want the planning system to be reformed (AFP via Getty)
Campaigners want the planning system to be reformed (AFP via Getty)

“You don’t end up with a community, you end up with a soulless housing estate,” she said, adding: “I’m sure there are many more developments than this survey [suggests] that are not producing the promised infrastructure and services.

“The planning system allows developers to say, if they don’t get a 15-20 per cent profit from a site, they can claim they can’t deliver half the things they promised, such as affordable homes – that’s a nightmare,” she said. “No other business I know of has their profits protected this way.”

The government’s new Levelling-up and Regeneration Act is designed to force developers to deliver vital infrastructure.

A DLUHC spokesperson referred to Mr Gove’s pledge to deliver more infrastructure alongside affordable housing, adding: “We are already taking steps to achieve that, through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act and new national planning policy framework, which makes the delivery of infrastructure faster and easier.

“Our infrastructure levy will go further, giving local authorities additional resources to fund public services, and incentivise development in urban areas where schools, surgeries and transport links already exist.”

The Independent approached the Home Builders Federation, the UK Property Developers Association and the Association for Housing Developers for comment.