There is no doubt there is a desperate need for social housing in Frome and the surrounding area. Housing register figures at November 2020 showed over 1500 people in need of housing. Of these, over 500 expressed a wish to live in Frome. Many of those would have a strong connection to the town. Space to build homes in Frome is lacking because of the large number of housing developments over the past five years. The real challenge is to provide those homes to families and others in a town where there is a shortage of space.
Many local authorities that previously provided social housing no longer do so and this includes Mendip District Council. We have been reliant on private developers building social housing for rent as part of the ‘affordable housing’ element of their developments. This has not always happened. Despite planning rules, developers do not always provide the social housing for rent they should. As a consequence, we are facing a social housing crisis in Frome – a crisis that impacts on the most vulnerable in our community.
So, what should happen to provide much needed homes? One solution is the use of green space owned by the Mendip Council. But there is increasing evidence of the real benefits to communities through having such spaces. Studies have shown greater exposure to nature and green space improves health and wellbeing, reduces stress, and improves community resilience and cohesion. The reverse is also being found. Living in urban environments leads to a decline in many important aspects of our lives. Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, says:
“People are discovering that they want and need to connect to nature more than ever. But it is local nature – in walking distance or short bike ride from home – which is particularly important for peoples’ mental and physical health.”
So, there is a dilemma: providing much needed homes and protecting green space.
Mendip District Council’s social housing programme, which uses their land, has been met with widespread dismay and anger. Included in the proposed sites were Easthill and the former allotments site on Broadway. The Easthill proposal has been withdrawn from the programme – a decision that has been much welcomed by the local community. These are invaluable green open spaces.
Frome is blessed with many green spaces: formal parks such as Victoria Park, the Cheese Show field, and Rodden meadow and nature reserve. They provide open spaces in the town – for residents to walk, exercise and to enjoy with others in their community. They are places for children to play and a habitat for wildlife. They are the ‘green lungs’ of our town. During the pandemic we have seen the vital importance of nature and green spaces. The importance of these spaces presents a significant challenge to the idea of using green spaces for social housing.
The notion that some green spaces have greater value than others is perhaps controversial, but the idea needs to be considered. For many residents, any green space no matter how big or small is valuable and must be protected simply because it is a green space. There are the small local street green spaces – almost patches of grass – some of which could be viewed as quite sterile offering little to the environment/community. Others provide much valued local and community spaces, and as a result perhaps have a greater sense of ‘ownership’ by the immediate community. When it is proposed to build social housing on green spaces of this kind, it is very important to listen to residents who are unhappy at the loss of their green space. The challenge is where to put social housing knowing that it will entail the loss of some green space. It is crucial to recognise there are green spaces that can offer substantive benefit to the community, which have to be protected. The challenge is finding the balance between the need for green space and the urgent and crucial need for social housing.
There is no easy solution. If not these green spaces for social housing, then where should social housing be built? The answer is surely not building social housing regardless of the environmental cost. Nor is the answer not building social housing because all green spaces must be protected regardless of the social cost. It is about meeting the need for both and finding the balance between protecting green space and providing housing for those in urgent need of a home they can afford.
John Clarke – Director FACLT