July 20, 2011

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There is a very real threat to people in Sefton, the threat of big new housing estates being built on land in Maghull, Aintree, Melling, Formby, Hightown, Ince Blundell, Thornton and Crosby on the open spaces next to where we all live.

This land is known as green belt and the green belt was set up by the Labour government after the Second World War. It was a fine achievement and remains so. I am committed to protecting the green belt and will oppose attempts to build on green belt here in Sefton.

 

But we face a threat.

 

The real threat is not from Sefton Council who are consulting on how to meet the need for housing over the coming years. The threat comes from developers who want to make a quick profit by building as many houses and flats as they can especially on green belt land as its quicker and cheaper than building on former industrial land which might need decontamination.

 

The government is about to publish changes to planning rules which will make it easier for developers and much harder for local communities to block planned development. Councils will also find it much harder to turn down planning applications as they will have  to demonstrate overwhelming reasons for not building including on the green belt. Planning law will once again favour the developer at the expense of the people who live in a community.

 

We have a very pleasant community in Sefton and if developers were to build on the green belt, then there would be pressure on schools, on doctors surgeries and on the roads. There are many examples of housing estates where no thought was given to parks and community centres. Under the new rules, the developers won’t have to take account of any of these issues.

 

Sefton Council is consulting on its Core Housing Strategy. We have many young adults who need somewhere to live, many more households than once was the case. There are something like 3,000 applications for each property which is made available by One Vision Housing. My own children will need somewhere to live one day. But that does not mean building on the green belt. In my view this should not touch the green belt.

 

Sefton has twice the national average of empty homes. These should be brought back into use. I was pleased to see that Sefton Councillor Ian Maher is establishing an empty homes strategy to get landlords to bring  their empty properties back into use.

 

There is also some land available which is not green belt. I start from the point of view that we should listen to the local community and make sure that development looks after people living here already. Too many developers are only interested in how much money they can make before moving on. All too often, developers pay lip service to the needs of the community both while building new houses and once the development has finished.

 

Imagine what that will be like once the planning rules are relaxed and developers can do as they please. We need to be confident that developers will listen to the community and include the facilities needed if there are to be more houses.

 

I plan to raise the issues about the changes in planning rules in Parliament. It would be helpful to have the support of as many people as possible from Sefton in making the case that the green belt should be protected and that developers have to respect the wishes of existing communities.

 

Will the government listen? So far when enough people have lobbied the government they have changed their minds. That happened on circus animals, on forests, on the NHS and on the coastguard, although not sufficiently to save Crosby coastguard station.

I have been to packed meetings in Maghull, Aintree, Lydiate, Hightown and Crosby. Other meetings have been held in Lydiate and public exhibitions have been on display.

Bu the biggest threat comes from the government. The more people who lobby the government, the better. So sign the petition on my website, www.billesterson.org.uk, write to me at 29 Liverpool Road North, Maghull, L31 2HB and write to the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles at the House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA  to object to the new planning rules.

 

If we really want to protect the green belt we have to change the minds of the government.

 

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We are all living longer. That means we will need more money in our retirement or we will need to work longer. It means that care of the elderly will cost more and that pensions will cost more. The government is reviewing pensions of staff in the public sector and has claimed that they will need to pay a lot more into their pensions.

 

There are a number of concerns about this claim.

 

The figures show that at present the pensions can be afforded for many workers. That means there is not the urgency for a big hike in contributions at a time when living standards are being squeezed and jobs are under threat. Any changes in pay should be handled sensitively.

 

Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem minister has said that staff will have to pay more for their pensions but negotiations are still under way. This was provocative and sounded a lot like a challenge to staff and to their union representatives. It was hardly a mature way to handle a major negotiation.

 

The evidence that I have seen shows that if there needed to be increases in the amount paid by public sector staff, this can be done over a number of years. It does not need to be done straight away, this year. Like so much else, the rush by the government risks being too far and too fast and this explains the understandable anger at the way the government has behaved.

 

It is fair to say that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers has not been on strike before, so something has gone badly wrong for their members to go on strike or for other union members to strike as well. The government should be more open about the true  picture. The suspicion remains that the change in the amount teachers are being asked to pay into their pensions has more to do with cutting the deficit than with dealing with the ageing population.

 

The lack of government honesty on this issue is a great worry and does not bode well for the future.

 

A final thought on pensions. Many in the private sector have very poor pensions or none at all. If the government wants to make amends for its dreadful handling of the pensions dispute with teachers and other public sector workers, it could bring in plans that make sure that everyone has a decent pension and can afford their care in retirement. That is the right way forward on pensions. 

We need agreement across society about how we pay for pensions and for care of the elderly. That can only come through proper discussion and planning. A system where we all have to pay into our own pension and future care needs may be the way forward but however it is done, confrontation and bullying is not the way forward.