A masterclass from Chris Huhne: how not to win an argument

Rather late in the day I’ve caught up with Chris Huhne’s article on housing in this morning’s Guardian.  It offers a masterclass in how to frame a reasonable argument (we need a big increase in house building) in a way that will alienate many of those you want to persuade.

Huhne says we need new towns in the south east, but that the PM is running scared of “losing nimby votes in the Tory heartlands.  Without new towns, the coalition has only a partial answer.  The loosening of planning controls has been half-hearted and ineffective….  Some of the cheapest housing of any major city in the US is in Houston, Texas, where there are no planning controls.  The tougher the planning controls, the higher are house prices.”

Where to begin – the assumption that new towns (if needed) must be in the south east; the dreary dismissal of opponents of development as ‘nimby’; the invocation of Texan planning laws as some sort of model for Britain?…

Almost everyone accepts that we need to build more homes.  The interesting questions are where they should go, who will build them and, crucially, how you can get people to support them.  Huhne makes some interesting points, but he appears to have no understanding that people might oppose developments for anything other than selfish reasons.    

For him, farmland is just a means to release value in order to fund house building.  It can be that – but it can also be beautiful, rich in nature and, er, productive.

When he was energy secretary, Chris Huhne gave the CPRE annual lecture on ‘beauty, tranquillity and power stations’.  It obviously didn’t come easily to him, but he grappled with the fact that some strange people really do care about aesthetics.  Anyone proposing large developments in open countryside should make a similar effort.        

2 Responses to “A masterclass from Chris Huhne: how not to win an argument”

  1. 1 Helen Marshall, CPRE Oxfordshire January 21, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Thanks for speaking up for aesthetics! If people don’t understand the intrinsic value of the countryside, it can be hard to convince them otherwise. We are about to face a tough fight in Oxfordshire to protect our Green Belt. We are being asked to justify its existence in economic terms which, whilst important, seems the wrong starting point. How do you measure quality of life, for us and future generations?

  2. 2 A F Crampin January 22, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    I think you can try and measure quality of life. Indeed CPRE’s tranquility studies some years back ventured into this territory. It means coming to grips with clumsily expressed concepts like eco-system services to physical, mental (and, possibly, spiritual) health and with assessing needs for green infra-structure. I know that, in CPRE, we like expressions such as “intrinsic value”, and valuing the countryside “for its own sake”, but all the values are actually in the minds of the beholders, and not really inherent in in the objects we survey. We have to quantify to compete with those who only reckon in economic terms and I believe there is some helpful work out there that we can draw on.

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