The case for urbanism: reminding Labour what it stood for

Reading CPRE’s response to the Lyons Housing Review prompts the thought that good ideas can lose political currency for no good reason.  I wrote in an earlier blog about the way in which the Government has simply chosen to ignore the evidence that building new roads is not the solution to congestion.  A long-standing political and academic consensus has been abandoned without explanation.  Perhaps the Government just got bored of the evidence.A similar phenomenon seems to have occurred with urbanism.  For over twenty years there was agreement that it is better to intensify towns and cities than build in the countryside.  But polices begun by Conservative Ministers, not least John Gummer, came to be associated with the Labour Government – worst of all, with that great bogeyman of the political Right, John Prescott.  Medium densities of 30-50 dwellings a hectare meant tiny apartments in tower blocks.  Brownfield first was all about town cramming and building in back gardens.  So policies that had saved vast areas of countryside and helped revive many urban areas were simply junked by the Coalition.

Well, that’s politics.  But what is more surprising is the extent to which Labour has lost its belief in urbanism.  At the fag-end of the Labour years it was hard to find any Minister willing to celebrate the achievements of its planning policies.  And now in opposition the party has asked Sir Michael Lyons to review housing policy with terms of reference that assume the need for new settlements and urban expansion into the countryside.

CPRE is not opposed in principle to new settlements.  Our policy recognises that they are an option when other options are exhausted.  And we have long championed well-designed urban extensions where existing settlements lack the capacity to meet need.

But surely the priority should be to develop vacant land and empty buildings in towns and cities, near to schools, shops and public transport?  Labour has forgotten the case for urban densification and it seems unwilling to listen to those making it.  There is a wealth of literature worth reading, including Becky Willis’s The Proximity Principle: why we are living too far apart and Family Housing: the power of concentration.  And CPRE London is publishing some major research in June as part of its Campaign for a Liveable London.  But is the party interested?

Its focus seems overwhelmingly to be on the number of new houses built.  The country does need more housing, but as Danny Dorling has argued, simply building homes for investors or to boost the buy-to-let market will not solve the housing crisis.  We need genuinely sustainable development (another concept that fell out of fashion for no good reason) not just an uplift in housing delivery regardless of its quality, location or ownership.

CPRE’s response to the Lyons Review asks the Labour Party to revisit the achievements of Lord Rogers’s Urban Task Force, with its emphasis on high quality design and master-planning.  The urban renaissance did a good deal for cities such as London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, but other towns and cities benefited less – and they risk further decline if future housing policies favour new settlements and an automatic right for already thriving towns to grow into the countryside.

The planning system can play a critical role in directing development to the most appropriate sites – which are not necessarily the most profitable for developers.  To help unlock suitable land for development we propose a ‘greenfield levy’, money from which could be used to remediate or aid development on brownfield land.

We also recognise that the major house builders, on whom the Government has pinned its hopes, are unlikely to deliver a big increase in supply.  Why should they?  On the whole their focus in on increasing margins, partly by building bigger houses in the south east, where possible on greenfield sites – and their profits are very healthy indeed.  So consideration should be given to requiring local authorities to allocate land specifically for self- and custom-build housing.

Our response notes (paragraphs 26-37) that the Labour Party is drawing heavily on the experience of two Labour-held local authorities, Stevenage and Oxford City, both of which want to expand into the surrounding Green Belt countryside without demonstrating that they have exhausted all other options.  Labour should support the plan-led system (and the Green Belt) and not policy-by-anecdote.

CPRE has also responded to the Lyons Review as part of the Smart Growth UK coalition, along with the Campaign for Better Transport, Civic Voice and the British Land Reclamation Society.  It would be good to have some sign that the Labour Party is willing to listen and engage.    





3 Responses to “The case for urbanism: reminding Labour what it stood for”

  1. 1 Arthur Franks March 4, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    I have said it before and it should be repeated; houses should be built to suit the local population not as dormitories for people working in the, not necessarily, nearest employment area. Local affordable housing for local people. Also what about councils building property to rent, dare I call them council houses! they worked until the great sell off that worked for some but not everyone.

  2. 2 andrew needham March 5, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    Appearing on the Daily Politics Show, Griff Rhys Jones, President of Civic Voice, has spoken out about the ambiguity of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

    Griff said ““To have a presumption in favour of brownfield sites is not the same as having a policy that brownfield sites should be built on first. It is obvious that housing on ‘greenfield sites” generate much more profit for developers, but planning policy should not be about helping developers to profiteer. But to the man in the street, this is exactly what the National Planning Policy Framework is doing”.

    Griff made his comments while appearing on the BBC Daily Politics as part of a debate on the planning system with Conservative, John Howells MP, the author of Open Source Planning.

  1. 1 The case for urbanism: reminding Labour what it stood for | green alliance blog Trackback on March 5, 2014 at 11:45 am

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