On the Marshes

Here is a longer version of my column in the latest issue of the Countryman.

About a dozen years ago, when we were developing our 2026 Vision for the countryside, CPRE considered launching a prize for nature writing. There was not much of it about and that seemed a pity. But nature writing did not need a prize from CPRE. It has flourished, with a new book out every week. And I have to confess, I have developed an allergy to the genre.

Too much of it seems to be about the authors finding themselves, rather than about landscapes and the natural world. “I walked the hillside, intoxicated by nature’s bounty, and reflected that my mother had never understood me.” Bah!

Carol Donaldson’s new book, On the Marshes, mixes personal trauma with reflections on the landscape of north Kent and the people living in it. I could have done with less on her doomed relationship. I hope her hapless ex gets a right of reply. But in spite of a bit too much sharing for my tastes, I loved the book as I love the “rough edged beauty” of the Medway valley and the Thames estuary. It also helps that like all Little Toller books, it is beautifully produced. Continue reading ‘On the Marshes’

The Countryman and the countryside, 90 years on

Here is my column for the 90th anniversary issue of the Countryman. You can see the first issue of the magazine here – the editor’s introduction, with its brief history of Idbury is a joy.

An anniversary is a good time to look back, and in CPRE we did plenty of that when we celebrated our 90th in December last year. But it is also a time to look forward and the Countryman, for all its tendency to nostalgia (part of its enduring appeal) has always cared about the future, and the need to improve rural areas and the lives of country people.

Dipping into any old issue of the Countryman shows how life has changed. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 essay, ‘I cook on oil’, gives a glimpse into what we would consider poverty, with water drawn from a well or collected from the roof (“only those who have had to carry water into the house and out again can appreciate the beatitude of a tap and a run-away”).

But Townsend Warner was not poor. Indeed, she was a freeholder, having paid £90 for her cottage (“it is neither picturesque nor convenient”) in Chaldon Herring, Dorset. The rural poor had it really tough. And they still do, though poverty is more hidden in rural than urban areas. Continue reading ‘The Countryman and the countryside, 90 years on’

The challenge of meeting housing targets

Last Friday I made a fascinating visit to King’s Lynn, hosted by the local MP, Sir Henry Bellingham. We visited some sites and I was able to discuss the challenge of getting more houses in the right place with council officers and the council’s cabinet member for development.

The visit was encouraging in many ways. It was good to see a bit of King’s Lynn, a very attractive, historic town. It was good to see a highly engaged local MP in action (it was an added bonus that Sir Henry had clearly digested several of CPRE’s publications on housing and planning). And it was good to get a better understanding of the issues faced by a local authority. All planning is local. There has to be national policy, but every place faces different challenges.

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council clearly accepts that it must plan for more housing and work to ensure its delivery. But it will struggle to oversee as much house building as the Government wants. What follows are six points I picked up from the visit. They represent my own views and they are not necessarily shared by Henry Bellingham or the local authority. Continue reading ‘The challenge of meeting housing targets’

The end of the road: challenging the consensus on road-building

I hope CPRE’s new report on roads, The End of the road? Challenging the road-building consensus will have a big impact. It shows conclusively that new roads neither relieve congestion nor aid economic growth, but that they do harm landscapes.

The full report is available here. A short film summarising it is here. With some 60 major schemes due to start in 2019-20, by far the biggest road building programme for decades, the report is timely. Roads are popular in the abstract, but many of the proposed schemes will seriously damage the places we care about, and to no good end.

My foreword to the report is below.

In 2006, in his article “Induced traffic again. And again. And again”, Professor Phil Goodwin pointed out that for 80 years, empirical studies and official reports have agreed that more road capacity leads to more traffic. The article was prompted by CPRE’s report, Beyond Transport Infrastructure, which concluded that new roads fill up quickly and that you cannot build your way out of congestion.

But this is not what a driver fuming in a traffic jam wants to hear (I speak personally). In 2014, the Government junked the evidence and announced the biggest road-building programme since the 1970s. Saloon bar policy-making won the day. Continue reading ‘The end of the road: challenging the consensus on road-building’

Landlines: why we need a strategic approach to land

CPRE’s new pamphlet, Landlines: why we need a strategic approach to land is one of our best.

Neil Sinden’s ‘long read’ introductory essay gives a great overview of the issue and why it matters. All the short pieces that follow are worth reading, but I would particularly highlight the contributions by Lord Deben, aka John Gummer (“we need a Department of Land Use”); Corinne Swan (“there is undoubtedly something missing within England to shape and guide development”); Barbara Young (“the one silver lining following the EU referendum is the opportunity to design an integrated land use strategy from scratch… in the context of climate change”); Georgina Mace and Ian Bateman (“decisions driven solely by market values have much lower aggregate values for the UK population than decisions that take account of the wider range of benefits from the land”); and Sir Terry Farrell’s rousing concluding essay:

“British cities and towns have hugely benefited from 1000 years of relative peace and stability…. But population growth and global warming effects like sea rises and fluvial flooding, as well as temperature rises and rainfall changes, are making us think again. The scale, complexity and seriousness of these issues mean we cannot any longer proceed as before, treating land as a disposable asset. We have now got to plan – and proactively plan for rapid and radical change.”

I hope Landlines will stimulate a debate on how England could benefit from a land use strategy, to sit alongside the forthcoming 25 Year Environment Plan. Here is my Foreword to Landlines.

Why are we not more interested in the land? Newspapers carry stories about where to put new houses, roads and runways; about flooding or hosepipe bans (sometimes at the same time); about the cost of food, water and energy. Climate change is acknowledged, but usually as distant threat, rather than as something already threatening homes and our most productive farmland.

But all these issues come back to the question of how we use land, and we seldom discuss that. Even in ‘land use planning’, we muddle through. Continue reading ‘Landlines: why we need a strategic approach to land’

Be positive: the Housing Minister’s challenge to CPRE

A week ago the Housing Minister Gavin Barwell gave CPRE’s annual lecture – you can read it here and view it here. The theme of the speech was familiar: how can we build more new homes? But it was a great improvement on similar speeches I have heard, for two reasons.

First, it was not based on the assumption that planning restrictions are the main reason we build too little. Pointing out that English councils granted planning permissions for 277,000 new homes in the year to September 2016, Barwell said: “If I was confident that all those homes would be built quickly we wouldn’t have needed to publish a housing white paper. But I’m not confident. There’s a large and growing gap between homes being granted planning permission and homes being started. And people can’t live in a planning permission.”

So the focus of the speech was not how to weaken planning but how to get homes built – ‘fixing our broken housing market’. Hurrah for that. CPRE has been banging on for ages about how the business model of the big builders militates against a step change in output; about the need to help small builders; about the merits of custom build; and about why we should not fixate on numbers alone, but also consider quality, affordability and, in particular, the special needs of rural areas. It was good to hear many of these themes rehearsed in the Minister’s speech.

The second reason for liking Gavin Barwell’s speech was that he engaged with legitimate concerns about development. Continue reading ‘Be positive: the Housing Minister’s challenge to CPRE’

Housing: Where’s the Plan

As we wait for the Housing White Paper, it is worth considering the economist Kate Barker’s ideas for getting more houses built.

Kate Barker produced two influential reports[1] for Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor, the first on housing supply (calling for a step change in house building to bring down the rate of house price inflation), the second on planning (which argued that it should be more responsive to market signals).

She was attacked by the Conservative opposition of the time – “Barker” became shorthand for building on greenfield land – but her views still carry great weight in the Treasury. And the Treasury view still carries great weight across government.

In September 2014 Kate Barker published Housing: Where’s the Plan? She says she has “become less convinced that it will be possible to build enough to meet demand in much of southern England, given the strength of local opposition in many places”. She also accepts that “a further radical reform of planning now would be unhelpful”.

So what is to be done to get more homes built? The book is well worth reading, a hundred well-written pages covering a lot of ground. Here are some talking points with particular relevance the White Paper. Continue reading ‘Housing: Where’s the Plan’

The Housing White Paper: what the government should do

There will be much to welcome in this month’s Housing White Paper. We expect a big emphasis on brownfield development and more support to enable local authority planning departments to do their job. Best of all, the White Paper looks set to address the main cause of the housing shortage: not planning or a lack of land, but the system’s over-dependence on a dozen big companies to deliver the new homes the country needs.

For too long the state’s responsibility for decent housing has been outsourced to private developers who have neither the will nor capacity to build on the scale needed. Now at last Ministers seem willing to tackle this market failure, for instance by helping small builders and promoting custom build and ‘modern methods of construction’. Slow build-out rates and landbanking by developers may also be tackled. There could even be more money for social housing and greater scope for councils to build homes again.

But we will not see a return to the scale of pre-1979 public house building. This is a pity because short of a Harold Macmillan-style building programme, there will be no quick increase in output. The Government is therefore stuck with a policy of setting housing targets[1] and making more land available in the hope that developers increase their output. This approach has failed for years and it will continue to fail.

Not only does the policy not deliver more houses; unachievable targets make planning a battlefield, rather than a way of improving the country for everyone’s benefit.

Most people now accept that we need to build more homes. Too many people live in insecure, over-expensive accommodation: something must be done. Most would also agree this will involve some new housing on greenfield land.

So Ministers have a chance in the White Paper to build a broad national consensus in support of more and better house building. But they will get things badly wrong if it does not address concerns about how the current system is failing. Inflated targets, particularly in ‘high demand’ areas, have made planning toxic. Continue reading ‘The Housing White Paper: what the government should do’

Heathrow and the ‘just about managing’ places

This article appears in the Winter 2016 edition of the Fabian Society’s magazine, Fabian Review.

Everyone wants to rebalance the UK economy, to generate jobs and growth in the parts of the country that need them most. Or at least they are keen in theory and when they are making speeches about it. But in reality, public money is poured into the wealthiest, most vibrant parts of the country regardless of the cost to places that are (to coin a phrase) ‘just about managing’.

And even when efforts are made to support parts of the country that are struggling, they are undermined because even more is done to stoke growth in places that already doing well. The thinking seems to be that firms want to invest in booming areas; people want to live there (of course they do – that is where the jobs are); and that it is the job of government to anticipate and accommodate this growth.

So predict and provide rules the day, whether in transport (build more roads to meet demand), housing (build homes ‘where people want to live’) or economic development (create more jobs where there are already jobs).

All this, we are told, helps ‘UK plc’. But UK plc does not exist; it is a slogan, a category mistake. In reality, as has been endlessly discussed since Brexit, a growing economy does not necessarily benefit all parts of the country, and the places left behind may actively resent those that are doing well. Continue reading ‘Heathrow and the ‘just about managing’ places’

1300 lost villages

Here is my latest Countryman column.

It is sometimes hard to separate our love of all things countryside from our propensity for nostalgia.

Perhaps this is because while most of us now live in towns and cities, we came from the countryside, however many generations back. Or perhaps it is because it is pleasanter to think of the milk maids of Hardy’s Wessex or a picturesque old windmill than a modern milking shed or wind turbine.

But another reason may be our sense that countryside is disappearing quite rapidly. Continue reading ‘1300 lost villages’