Housing for town and country

Here is my column from the December issue of the Countryman, available in all good newsagents.

Two recent conversations captured for me, the good and bad sides of the housing debate.

First, I was chatting to a woman hoping to move with her young family from a large town to the sort of village in which she grew up. But almost every village she looks at is facing proposals to double in size in the next few years. “We don’t want to move somewhere that never changes or grows,” she says, “but they’re planning to destroy what makes these places special.”

These are villages where the local authority is deemed not to have an up to date local plan or an adequate supply of land for housing. Developers circle them with proposals for new estates knowing that they will be hard to turn down. This is not an accident of policy. It is England’s planning policy in 2016. And it is leading to angry resistance across the shires. Continue reading ‘Housing for town and country’

How to intensify the housing crisis

Tomorrow the Government will decide how it plans to intensify the housing crisis in the south-east and usher in more strife over house building. In other words, it is going to decide whether it favours expanding Heathrow, Gatwick or both.

The justification for airport expansion in the south-east is largely economic. Both airports have spent astonishing amounts of money lobbying MPs and others.[1] Heathrow, we are told, will add £211 billion to the UK economy by 2050 and create 80,000 new jobs in London and the South East. Gatwick’s backers claim a second runway “will generate 21,000 jobs at the airport, as well as indirect and catalytic employment” in “places such as” Croydon, Hastings and Brighton, i.e. across a pretty wide area.

This is investment that could help rebalance the UK’s economy, already skewed to the southern counties of England. These are jobs that could be created in the places that need them most, where there is more space within existing towns and cities to accommodate the workers. Continue reading ‘How to intensify the housing crisis’

Custom build in Holland: lessons for the UK

“Don’t let the developers near. They won’t develop.” That was the advice given to British planners in 2009 by Wulf Daseking, Freiburg’s chief planner for nearly 30 years.[1]

One way to speed things up and improve quality is custom and self-build housing, which puts the buyer in control of the development. The sector accounts for some 60% of new homes in France, around 80% in Austria. In Britain, it contributes only around 12-14,000 new homes a year, but it is attracting growing interest from politicians. So I was pleased to join a two-day visit to Amsterdam hosted by Igloo Regeneration to get a better idea of how it works.

Our first afternoon was spent in Almere, a new city 25 kilometres out of Amsterdam. Continue reading ‘Custom build in Holland: lessons for the UK’

Building near Green Belt stations

It is rumoured that the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid set to announce a serious investment in house building and the infrastructure to go with it, with a strong emphasis on brownfield development. This is very welcome. But the Daily Mail’s suggestion that he will announce “enhanced planning powers to allow construction of houses and apartments on land, much of it derelict around railway stations especially in the South East” raises concern about the integrity of the Green Belt.

The principle of building around transport hubs is a good one and was supported in a recent CPRE report, Making the Link. But the Communities Secretary should beware of the idea that simply building around Green Belt stations in the Green Belt is an unproblematic way to solve the housing crisis. This has been energetically proposed by various enemies of the Green Belt and the planning system (step forward the Adam Smith Institute). The argument against is put briefly in CPRE’s Green Belt myth-buster. I have copied the relevant passage below.

In brief, building around Green Belt stations could be incompatible with key purposes of the Green Belt, preventing sprawl and stopping places merging together. Continue reading ‘Building near Green Belt stations’

The developer-led planning system

One of my jobs at CPRE is to go round England cheering up our branches and regional groups. I am not sure I ever really succeed, but they often succeed in depressing me.

This is not, I hasten to say, because they are all miserabilists or because we are losing every battle. I always come away proud that CPRE has so many talented and dedicated people, and full of admiration for what they achieve with minute resources. CPRE saves countryside that would otherwise be lost and improves the quality of many developments. But our local volunteers are finding the going tough, and they are not shy about saying so.

Yesterday I gave my usual message to the CPRE South West meeting in Taunton: the Government is listening, our messages are getting through, we hope we can persuade it to change course. Very few people any longer think that weakening the planning system and releasing more land is the way to solve the housing crisis: that seven year experiment is nearing its end. Indeed, no one seriously thinks the private sector will build houses on the scale the country needs: the 37 year experiment of leaving housing to the private sector has spectacularly failed.

I genuinely think we may be at a moment for radical new thinking about housing – or perhaps a variant of old thinking, harking back to the years when Conservative governments prided themselves both on building houses and looking after the countryside.

For now, though, at a local level CPRE branches have to grapple with a system of mind-blowing, spirit sapping complexity and opaqueness, one that seems almost designed to discourage civil society from having its say. Continue reading ‘The developer-led planning system’

Visiting Alconbury Weald, Huntingdon

A couple of weeks ago I went on a fascinating visit to Alconbury Weald, a large and impressive Urban and Civic development on an ex-USAF airfield outside Huntingdon.

The development is supported by CPRE Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. I only really got a sense of its scale on a drive round the site. Not only is it the largest business park in the country by some distance; there are also plans for 5,000 new homes, three primary schools and a secondary school. There is huge investment in landscaping, heritage assets are being preserved (the heritage in this case is mostly of the Cold War), and a design code is in place.

In addition to 1100 acres of brownfield land occupied by the old airbase, 330 acres of farmland have been purchased, linking the development to the town of Huntingdon. Some of this land will be developed, the rest will act as a green corridor between the new settlement and the town. Alconbury Weald will not have a major retail centre; the intention is to support Huntingdon’s struggling town centre.

You can read about the development here and here. The visit prompted four thoughts in particular: developers can win consent for good developments, but they have to work for it; we focus on housing, but it is often the lack of infrastructure that stops housing getting built; we talk about the housing crisis (and the emergency of climate change) but then carry on pretty much as usual; the one crisis response is to weaken the planning system, in the mistaken belief that this will significantly boost house building.    Continue reading ‘Visiting Alconbury Weald, Huntingdon’

A fair deal for our farmers

First published in Shooting Times, 31st August 2016

Post-Brexit politics looks set to be dominated by years of hard, tedious trade negotiations and arguments over what to do with over 40 years of EU-inspired legislation. The business of ‘getting back control’ may be pretty dull.

But one area of policy enthuses both sides in the referendum campaign: forging national agricultural policies to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Britain’s countryside has been shaped by farming, and farming since the Second World War has been largely shaped by public policy. UK farmers currently receive just over £3 billion a year in financial support, but both the overall sum and how it is spent are largely determined in Brussels. Now we must decide how, and how much, to support British farmers.

Continue reading ‘A fair deal for our farmers’

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