Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

The Curious Case of Nick Boles

Planning was back in the news last week, with Planning Minister (apparently, there is such a thing) Nick Boles causing a stir by suggesting that more houses should be built on virgin land, and by also claiming that everyone should have their own bit of property with a garden.  He also made the point that urban landscapes can be more beautiful than natural landscapes.

All of these got him into bother.  I’m right there with him on the need to build more houses, and there is a need – there has always been a need – to use greenfield land to deliver them.  And the need is as much to do with changing household structure as it is immigration.

Brownfield land became in vogue during the last Labour government, particularly following the publication of the Urban Task Force report in 1999.  The ‘urban renaissance’ that followed saw the emergence of loft living, converted warehouses in city centres and lead to a requirement, through planning guidance issued to local authorities, to aim for a target of 60% of houses built on brownfield land.  It was an incredibly successful policy.  However, it still expected 40% of housing to be built on greenfield land to meet the housing need.

The success of the policy has perhaps lead to an increased perception amongst the public that developing brownfield land is easy.  Certainly, the land that’s easy gets developed, but brownfield land suffers from complexities – previous uses leave contamination, waste, ownership constraints, access difficulties, legal constraints, demolition needs, heritage issues, concerns over wildlife.  Development on brownfield land carries risk, which developers don’t like; these risks and constraints will often be significantly reduced in developing on greenfield land.  Opportunity for developing on brownfield land is also reducing as sites are used up, and on occasion, developing brownfield land may require housing to be lost in order for it to be replaced.

So the idea that we can avoid meeting our housing needs on greenfield land is, in my view, folly and the Planning Minister has started a useful debate.

His comments on design are also welcome.  It’s interesting that a Conservative minister has raised the idea that the built environment can be beautiful, and that everyone deserves their own little bit of space in their private lives.  It’s shown that some Tories do actually care about the quality of architecture and space, and that it does make a difference to people’s lives and well being.  It also seems to fly in the face of the prevailing Coalition policies which abolished the Government’s advisor on architecture and planning, CABE, and scrapped an innovative schools building programme which had a strong design ethic which focused on creating environments in schools which stimulated learning.  My perception is that the Coalition favours economy and speed over quality.

Living in London, there is a sense that dense urban living is accepted to some degree.  Greenfield land is less available than in the rest of the country, and there is a high demand for housing.  Many people live in flats and apartments; large houses are often sub-divided because property prices are so high.  People do without gardens and don’t need space to park cars.  The threat to develop greenfield land, create low density suburbs and privatise the countryside hits the rest of the country hardest, and really puts the willies up traditional Tory voters.  Ironically, those most opposed to others having houses and gardens are those with the biggest of each.

And this is perhaps why the comments are so interesting; they espouse good design when the Tories clearly don’t care that much about good design – witness the retail parks and megastores of the 1980s; they dare to suggest beauty in the man made over the natural landscape (though of course all our natural landscape is borne out of centuries of man’s influence); they push a middle class idea about towns and cities which overlooks the diversity of accommodation that people actually need and expect and they challenge the perceptions and values of rural dwelling people who claim not to be nimbys when all they seek is to stop anything changing the place where they live.

In the wake of the debate, the Independent ran an article about a small town near Bradford, Menston, where there were a number of planned housing allocations that would expand the town.  The tone of the article was one of despair and horror as the town was to be imposed upon with more people, more cars, more problems and how on earth would it cope.  It was full of concerns about paving over the countryside and turning villages into cities, all of which tends to be over-exaggerated, but emphasises nevertheless the tensions created by the Boles’ outburst at a time when communities are being told by the Government that they should be closer to planning decisions made in their communities.  And this type of talk sells papers whilst glossing over the real issues.

In my experience, very few people see the benefits that development can bring.  With development can come a solution to the problems of a place, a wider range of shops and services and a solution to long standing infrastructure problems.  Resistance to development is an instinct, and a right, but new housing and new services are needed and have to happen somewhere, not least to resolve the economic mess we’ve all created over the last 20 years or so.

The Planning Minister has awakened a debate that needs to be had, a boil that need to be lanced.  We have a crushing and inevitable need for new housing; we have to look at developing greenfield land and sharing the development across a range of towns and cities, and we have to look at making that development as successful as possible so people can enjoy living there.  This needs to be impressed upon the electorate, and especially upon those who want to shut up shop and prevent development. A more successful debate needs to be had, and the contradictions at the heart of the Government’s approach to planning aren’t helping achieve clarity.

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