Residents at war in Eastleigh over proposed development

Stoke Park Wood in Eastleigh, south Hampshire, is home to hundreds of acres of ancient forest, wildlife and trickling streams.

Aside from an occasional dog walker or horse rider, there is hardly anyone around on the muddy bridle path on the edge of the woods.

It’s bitterly cold, but with the sun shining it’s hard to imagine a more perfect location for a country walk.

But that could all be about to change.

The local council wants to build a motorway link road straight through the middle of this beautiful woodland — then put up 5,200 new homes on the surrounding greenfield land.

Idyll: Campaigners against the development plans at Stoke Park Wood in Eastleigh, Hampshire

Eastleigh is by no means an exception: across the country, patches of green and pleasant land like this are under threat as local authorities scrabble to solve Britain’s housing crisis.

Since 2010, home ownership has fallen to a 30-year low. Only a quarter of middle earners aged between 25 and 34 now own a property, compared to two-thirds in 1995, according to official figures. 

And a Resolution Foundation report this month claimed a third of millennials could still be renting in retirement.

Yet the number of homes being built has still not recovered to pre-recession levels. The lack of supply is pushing up prices, leaving young families struggling to get on the ladder.

The Government believes that building 300,000 homes a year in England by 2025 is the answer and has ordered local authorities to outline suitable locations.

Last month Prime Minister Theresa May warned that if councils don’t build enough houses they will lose their right to determine where they are placed. Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, told them he’d be ‘breathing down their neck’.

But Britain’s latest housebuilding drive has led to fierce debates within communities about where these properties should go. 

At one extreme are the Nimbys (Not In My Back Yard) who don’t want any housebuilding in their neighbourhood for fear the construction would ruin their views and be too noisy.

At the other you have a new breed of campaigners nicknamed ‘Yimbys’ (Yes In My Back Yard) who want housing to help their children and grandchildren raise families.

The majority sit somewhere between, pushed and pulled by these factions.

Against: Anna Martin, pictured with daughters Iona (centre) and Annabel, walks and jogs in the woods most days of the week

Against: Anna Martin, pictured with daughters Iona (centre) and Annabel, walks and jogs in the woods most days of the week

Eastleigh, which must build 14,580 new homes by 2036, is a prime example of the new dynamic. It was one of 15 councils shamed last year for being too slow to put a plan in place. Now the council has revealed a proposal to build nearly 2,000 more homes than required.

It has sparked uproar among the residents guiding me around the area. They’re concerned that one in three houses is earmarked for greenfield land around Stoke Park Wood, and the idea of a road through the middle appals them.

They tell me one Yimby is pushing this development more than anyone else — Keith House. The Liberal Democrat leader of Eastleigh Borough Council, who has held that role for more than 20 years, claims the development will create jobs and bring in extra council taxes.

‘It has been known and accepted for years that we need to build more homes in the right places,’ he says. ‘While this shift from buying to renting is fine in London and other big cities, there isn’t the stock in the suburbs and on the South coast.

‘There is a change of tone in the housing debate as people realise that it’s their sons and daughters who can’t afford homes.’

It’s clear why families would want to live in a location such as this. You’d have rural Hampshire on your doorstep while being a 30-minute drive from Southampton and within commuting distance of London.

And Mr House is adamant he can deliver the schools, roads and other facilities that will be needed here.

‘All too often councils put the houses up first and then fail to deliver on the infrastructure,’ he says. ‘We’re committed to putting that in — it’s in the plans.’

Lib Dem councillor Keith House claims the development will create jobs and bring in extra council taxes

Lib Dem councillor Keith House claims the development will create jobs and bring in extra council taxes

But resident Bruce Mitchell, 55, a civil servant, accuses Mr House of ignoring overwhelming opposition. More than 30 people, including environmental experts and charities, spoke against the proposals at a meeting in December that ran on until after 1am, he says.

The mayor, deputy mayor and three councillors have quit the Lib Dems over the plans, to run as independents. Even Eastleigh’s Tory MP, Mims Davies, says the move was ‘panicked and rushed’.

Helen Kerris Shaw, 39, who runs an animal charity where the development will be, says: ‘I’ve volunteered at the charity since I was nine and it’s quite shocking to think it might all be bulldozed over.’

Anne Martin, 46, who walks and jogs in the woods most days of the week, says Mr House isn’t thinking about the quality of life in the area.

‘There are very few places you can go and have such quietness,’ she says. ‘It is just so short-sighted.’

Anne’s daughter Iona, 11, who was highly commended in the British Wildlife Photography Awards, says the road will be like a ‘Berlin Wall’ for animals which live in the woods.

According to the Woodland Trust, just 2 per cent of the UK is ancient woodland which has existed since records began in 1600 in England and Wales, and 1750 in Scotland.

Jack Taylor, of the Woodland Trust, says light and road pollution are major threats to wildlife that rarely get mentioned. ‘These woodlands could be saved with thoughtful design, and people in Eastleigh are right to be alarmed,’ he says.

Environmentalists are also concerned that the new road will damage the nearby Itchen river, which has European Special Area of Conservation status. TV naturalist Chris Packham, who grew up in nearby Southampton, has described the plan as ‘eco-vandalism’.

Kate Beal-Blyth, 40, is a member of local action group Action Against Destructive Development.

She’s lived in Eastleigh most of her life, running a television production company, and says the group recognises the need to build but says that, with a new railway station and motorway junction, these could be nearer the centre of the borough.

Green belt: One in three houses in the Eastleigh development is earmarked for greenfield land around Stoke Park Wood

Green belt: One in three houses in the Eastleigh development is earmarked for greenfield land around Stoke Park Wood

‘We desperately need new homes — they are just being built in the wrong place,’ she says. 

According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, there is space on brownfield land — which has previously been developed — to build one million homes around the country. Many sites already have planning permission so homes can go up straight away, the group says.

But PricedOut, which aims to help young people get on the housing ladder, says that won’t be enough. It claims much of the green belt isn’t as beautiful as people think — and banning new-builds prevents people from living near work.

Mr House agrees. ‘Every time we have had major development there is inevitable local opposition,’ he says. ‘But in this case, there is no alternative solution closer to the town centre with the right infrastructure.’

Mr House insists he wants to protect the woodland and says the council is not building more homes than Eastleigh needs, as the plan takes into account long-term trends. He says 35 per cent will be affordable housing, with a mix of different property types.

Kate Beal-Blyth is a member of Action Against Destructive Development

Kate Beal-Blyth is a member of Action Against Destructive Development

Some communities may be able to avoid the sort of disputes that are splitting opinion in Eastleigh.

One idea gaining popularity is to fill empty homes before building new ones. More than 11,000 homes across the UK have been empty for at least ten years, according to the Liberal Democrats. 

About 216,000 have been empty for six months. The Government announced last November that it would allow councils to charge double tax on properties that have been unoccupied and unfurnished for two years or more.

The Intergenerational Foundation think tank says the Government should focus on filling empty rooms in homes. There are 25 million spare bedrooms in England, it says, adding that many houses are owned by empty-nest pensioners in family-sized houses.

For many the costs of downsizing — estimated by Money Mail last year at £29,000 on average — are too off-putting. Experts such as John Godfrey, Theresa May’s former head of policy, say a stamp duty tax break for downsizers could free up these properties for growing families.

Mrs May has also suggested former shops could be turned into homes as more people buy online. She says Britain should look to build up as well as out — which could mean using spaces above shops, too.

The Prime Minister plans to relax planning rules so people can add two more floors to many properties.

Some experts have even suggested building above car parks. Property agency JLL says it has identified 868 car parks within a mile of a station in London that could support an average of 90 homes each. 

Another concept gaining popularity is the prefab home. These houses are fabricated in factories in as little as 20 days. 

Picturesque: The River Itchen which borders the proposed development is one of the world's most exclusive fishing areas

Picturesque: The River Itchen which borders the proposed development is one of the world’s most exclusive fishing areas

They are then transported to the necessary location where they take just a few hours to erect. The benefit would be building more homes more quickly, limiting the disruption and noise that cause concern to many Nimbys.

The Government hopes that garden towns — whole towns and villages built in commuter belt territory — will also provide room for thousands more homes. Some 14 developments were approved last year from Cornwall to Cumbria. Five in the corridor between Oxford and Cambridge are in the pipeline.

Mrs May says she’s working to speed up the planning process to boost housebuilding. Plus there will be a crackdown on developers who sit on land and wait for its value to rise to maximise profits.

Yet for residents in areas such as Eastleigh, where councils are under pressure to build thousands of homes right now, these alternatives are emerging too late.

Unless enough people back an affordable, sustainable alternative — and win over councillors whose reputations are on the line — campaigners may be fighting a losing battle.

It could mean some of Britain’s most beautiful rural areas, whether the locals like it or not, change irrevocably. And as Eastleigh’s 11-year-old photography star Iona Martin is at pains to tell me, that’s causing a great deal of heartache.