Two months ago thousands of people across Kent held protests against “relentless” housebuilding in the county. They marched in opposition to “huge developments” springing up on farmland and “inflated” housing targets imposed on councils by the government.
But just how much of Kent has been ‘concreted over’ with new homes over the past five years? The picture varies greatly across the county.
In Dartford, 2,463 new-builds have been sold since 2017, making up a quarter of all sales in the borough, according to data from the Land Registry. Similarly in Maidstone, 2,105 have been bought, which is 16% of homes sold.
So while Canterbury City Council may have a target in its 2017 Local Plan of 16,000 new homes being built by 2031, at the current rate just 1,779 (11%) will be bought by that point.
Yet there is already a target for a further 17,000 to be built by 2040 under the proposed new Local Plan.
Some fear that if the new homes are built, the city will lose some of its unique character and end up more like Milton Keynes.
Yet the shortage of housing supply is already having a real impact on residents, with many first-time buyers choosing to move outside the district, where they can find lower prices.
First-time buyers face stiff competition from Londoners
Estate agents say the demand for new-builds in places like Canterbury is there – but there is a severe lack of supply.
Not only are there fewer new homes coming on the market, but the existing properties are often getting snapped up by Londoners.
As a result, more and more first-time buyers from the district are looking to places like Thanet.
Charlie Bainbridge, director of Charles Bainbridge estate agents, said: “It comes simply down to the supply of those new houses.
“There’s no doubt the demand is there. You can measure that, as when a new development has come to fruition they tend to sell quite rapidly.”
Mr Bainbridge highlighted Taylor Wimpey’s Royal Parade estate as an example of a “very successful” development in Canterbury.
According to the Land Registry, the number of first-time buyers in the district increased 7.4% during the last 12 months – but in Thanet this figure is 14%.
The average price paid by a first-time buyer in Canterbury is £270,133, almost £40,000 more than in Thanet. In Sevenoaks, the most expensive district, it is £371,763.
“Pricing and availability in Canterbury means it’s very difficult for first-time buyers unless they are on a fairly substantial joint-income and have a reasonable financial punch,” Mr Bainbridge said.
“People are coming down from London and looking to relocate.
“You’ve got a lot of properties which are second homes and holiday lets which traditional first-time buyers would have been in the market for.
“There is a lot of buy-to-let investors still. You might have a family that want to put their money in a property.
“City centres are popular for buy-to-let because they produce buy-to-let income and they like aesthetically having property in that sort of area.”
The number of properties used as student accommodation also has an impact on availability.
Mr Bainbridge said: “We see quite a lot of students’ parents buy houses in the city centre wanting to rent it for a few years – with a couple of rooms let out to other students. More than half keep hold of it.”
He also acknowledges that there have been problems getting new homes built in the areas surrounding the city.
“Ashford and Maidstone have a more sprawling demographic,” he said.
“New-builds are rippling out from those towns. Canterbury doesn’t have the same space.
“Canterbury is a beautiful city, as are the surrounding areas. Whatever you are going to develop is going to be very upsetting for anyone with an environmental appreciation – me included. I’m very sensitive to that.
“I would rather see development sensitively handled than to steamroller it.
“But that leaves you with a problem – where is the supply going to come from?”
Why are some areas struggling to build new homes?
In Canterbury, there have been two key stumbling blocks: legal challenges to proposed developments and concerns over pollution at Stodmarsh nature reserve.
The former is most clearly exemplified in the plans for Mountfield Park, a 4,000-home estate earmarked for south Canterbury. With those homes built, the council would already be a quarter of its way to meeting its 2031 target.
But the scheme has faced fierce opposition, and in October the city council was forced to quash its own planning permission following a High Court legal challenge.
Developers have already launched a fresh bid to get the plans through.
Yet another huge obstacle in getting new homes built is the concerns raised by Natural England over the impact of construction on the wetlands at Stodmarsh, which are deemed to be suffering from high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.
As a result, housebuilding across east Kent has stalled for several months.
Council leader Ben Fitter-Harding believes the issues holding up developments in the district can be unblocked.
He said: “Canterbury City Council’s 2017 Local Plan focused development on a small number of large strategic sites in order to deliver accompanying infrastructure delivery, such as the Herne relief road and Sturry link road.
“A number of sites, most notably Mountfield Park, have been delayed by legal action.
“There’s a high likelihood that the issues will be resolved and that delivery on these sites will therefore start, meaning the supply of new housing has been delayed rather than reduced permanently.
“No doubt the additional pressure of nutrient neutrality at Stodmarsh will add increasing difficultly, but again the effect will be temporary as the issues are resolved.
“Over the long term I see no reason why housebuilding won’t continue at the mandated pace.”
Regarding the proposed new Local Plan, Cllr Fitter-Harding says the objective is not to “massively over-deliver” new-build housing.
“I am acutely aware that the planning system results in almost all development taking place on greenfield sites, and I have no intention of gobbling up swathes of countryside unnecessarily,” he said.
Cllr Fitter-Harding says the larger number of houses has been put forward in order to “deliver the infrastructure that our district needs”, such as a bypass to the east of the city.
“Residents always tell me that new development needs to be ‘infrastructure first,’ and I agree – particularly when we are already under-served by existing infrastructure in our district,” he said.
“It’s important that the new Local Plan supports that objective.”
The Conservative was also keen to highlight that the council does not typically build houses or put forward sites to be built on.
“That all depends on housing developers and landowners,” he said.
“The council’s role, then, is to make housing allocations in the most sustainable, least damaging places, and ensure that all residents benefit from the wider improvements, whether roads, cycle paths, bus lanes, schools, doctors’ surgeries or even hospitals, as a result.”
'We'll end up like Milton Keynes - but worse'
One councillor fears the vast number of homes planned will have a “dramatic impact” on Canterbury.
Lib Dem Cllr Nick Eden-Green, said: “It will be en-route to turning what is a small and fairly intimate city like Durham or Ely, into a very different place with effects on the intimate neighbourhood feel of the city and its closely woven nature.
“I can compare it to Milton Keynes, but at least Milton Keynes has had the opportunity to plan properly for its expansion.
“In Canterbury, we’re tacking on a series of housing estates without putting in the proper infrastructure or having a clear masterplan for the future. So we’d end up having a place not as good as Milton Keynes because that was master-planned from the outset.
“Ebbsfleet, for example, was planned in advance and has £530 million in government funding for new infrastructure. They’re only building 15,000 more houses, while we’re set to have a load more without a penny of funding.”