Don’t urbanise the Downs, the campaign against the creation of a new town of 3,000 houses in East Sussex, first came to my attention when I saw the ‘No Eton New Town’ posters, opposing development on land owned by Eton College. However, I didn’t think much more about it until I was thinking of an example for an issue that combined my concern for nature and social factors for a politics project.
On paper, this should be a perfect topic to engage young people – the environment and the housing crisis are issues that directly impact my generation. Yet, I’ve found out that when it comes to planning developments on greenfield land, there appears to be a complete absence of young people’s voices.
No incentives for young people to get involved
So why is it that young people don’t feel this issue is immediately relevant to them? To me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my age group, planning issues feel like the domain of white, middle-aged, middle-class homeowners and it should really be no surprise then that my generation doesn’t participate in boring council public reviewing processes. It also feels beyond our reach as we are unlikely to be able to afford these houses in the future. Furthermore, we are not taught in schools about the impact that local politics can have on our lives and the importance of taking proactive steps.
I have found the political systems and structures in place do not encourage the young to get involved in local issues. When I contacted my local MP Andrew Griffith about organising a surgery about environmental issues, I received exactly the response I thought I would: “It’s great to hear young people are interested in politics” but was redirected to Hassocks parish council. I then waited a couple of weeks, only to hear they were unable to host it. Whilst I would love to say I persisted and was able to secure this event, I didn’t, despite asking Andrew Griffith to consider booking a private venue for the surgery. I was tired of being pushed back and forth between various people who did not seem to have an interest in hearing our voices.
My experience shows clearly how big an issue this poses for democracy and equal representation. The lack of participation in this political sphere is not due to lack of interest; as illustrated by the dramatic rise of youth activism on a global scale, but at the local level there is virtually no involvement. The incentive to engage is gagged because young people feel that it will change nothing.
Building for profit will not solve the housing crisis, nor protect the environment
But we would be far more willing to engage if the housing debate did not so often miss the point. Why are we not talking more about how to make properties such as second homes and Air B & B available as homes for local people? Already we can see the damage to local communities where property has been seen as an investment, such as in Cornwall, where towns have been ruined by second homes: schools and local shops are under threat and staff shortages are rampant, as local people are priced out of the market. And when new housing is needed why is there little discussion on locating development in areas where there is an existing infrastructure and where it will have less ecological damage on the surrounding area?
The truth is that we feel especially conflicted about this subject. We are well aware of the lack of affordable housing affecting people today, and it seems unjust to object to the building of new homes, especially when we are seen to be agreeing with a 50+ conservative demographic if we do. This is backed up by a survey for my coursework in which I discovered that young people aged 10-19 had by far the most divided views, with the majority saying they could not decide whether housing or environment should be prioritised. But why should we have to compromise?
But the truth of the matter is that building on the greenbelt around East Chiltington will be primarily of benefit to Eton College. The development will not solve the housing crisis because the aim is profit for an entitled institution which thinks it can do what it wants. Building on greenfield land will not actually help us in the long run: it may be cheaper now but we will pay the price later. Maybe things will change now people realise that the emphasis on growth, while people struggle to afford to live, is not the answer and that corporations which abuse the planet’s resources for profit will be held to account.
What might unite us is the concern of people from all age groups that our happiness and safety is inherently tied to the earth on which we live and so the solution must combine justice for people and the planet. An answer that protects the environment but also cushions the wealthy at the expense of those who desperately need housing while, at the same time, ignoring young people in this debate, will not get anywhere