Posted by: Colin Wiles14/09/2011
George Orwell once wrote that England is like a family with the wrong members in control. His quote came to me as I reflected on the heated spat over the government’s draft National Policy Planning Framework. The argument is like a scene from the early chapters of Evelyn Waugh’s greatest novel Scoop. Down in deepest Barsetshire The Old-Etonian Duke, aided and abetted by wicked uncles George and Eric, is planning to sell off a corner of his landed estate to local housebuilder Messrs Bildit & Runne in order to pay for repairs to the west wing. Bearded cousin George, the angry eco-warrior, is writing furious letters of protest to the Barsetshire Guardian and his arch-enemy “Mad” Aunt Melanie is writing equally furious letters to the Barsetshire Mail. Down in the village the matrons of the amenity society, led by old Squire Jenkins, are off to see their MP, whilst members of the local Badger and Bunny Group are writing to the Queen. Meanwhile, in the snug of the local pub the yokels are muttering their support for the Dukes’ plans, after all, their grown-up children are desperate for somewhere to live…(to be continued).
If the debate over the NPPF has a slight pantomime feel it is because it has degenerated into a rather juvenile concrete or countryside argument. Look at any of the campaign literature put out by the National Trust, CPRE or Daily Telegraph and you will see images of rolling countryside and ancient woodlands. Yet this type of landscape will retain its protection and is clearly not going to be built on under the NPPF proposals. The “concreting over the countryside” rhetoric is both misleading and untruthful, as I show below. I have no problem with the nimbys (deep down we are probably all nimbys) but too many of the anti-NPPF people appear to be BANANAs* and their view of the world is simply out of touch and unrealistic.
Just to highlight the flaws in the anti-NPPF rhetoric let’s do the math, as the Americans would say.
The land area of England is 130,400 sq kilometres. Of this around 10% is built upon, 13% is green belt and 9% is national park. This leaves 68% (or nearly 90,000 square kilometers) that could loosely be defined as “countryside”, ranging from areas of outstanding natural beauty at one end of the spectrum (protected) to infertile, sterile and unaesthetic scrubland at the other.
Now, if we consider housing, which is one of the principal targets of the anti-NPPF campaign, let’s assume that we build Kate Barker’s target of 250,000 new homes over the next ten years (at present we are building only 100,000). In 2010 76% of all new homes were built on previously developed land but let’s also assume that, under the NPPF, this falls to 65%, leaving 87,500 homes to be built on the 90,000 square kilometres mentioned above. On the assumption that we build at a very conservative 35 homes to the hectare that means we would take up a mere 25 square kilometres of “countryside” each year – or 250 square kilometres over a ten year period, at which point 2.5 million new homes would have been built. 250 square kilometres is less than a third of one percent of 90,000 square kilometres. I repeat, less than a third of one percent. We would have to keep building at this rate for over 500 years before we even approached the same urban density as Holland, where 20% of the land is built upon. (Now I know that other forms of development will take place – industry, retail, business and roads - but housing is by far the biggest consumer of land.)
So you can see why the CPRE and the National Trust are using scaremongering tactics in their campaign. They know full well that “concreting over the countryside” is a myth based on untruths and a distortion of the facts. It will be up to councils within their local plans to protect landscapes that communities value, pure and simple. And we should not fetishise the countryside. The English countryside is not natural, it is entirely man-made and ranges from stunningly beautiful places at one end of the spectrum to ugly, polluted scrubland at the other, (and it also contains some pretty dark and unpleasant places such as battery and pig farms.) Some of it would benefit from selective sustainable development. As the Royal Horticultural Society has said, “suburban gardens are brilliant for wildlife.”
If we are to have a grown-up debate about the NPPF the starting point must be an acceptance on all sides that we need to build at least 5 million new homes over the next 20 years to cope with past under-supply and household growth (there will be 5.8 million new households by 2033). Then we can start talking about where and how these new homes will be built. The truth is that we have masses of land in England, as even a quick glance at Google Earth will show, and much of it is either unused, under-used or could benefit from sustainable improvement. But what we need is sensible house-building in the places where people want to live, within towns and cities and in town and city extensions (so that commuting is reduced), characterised by good design, open space, allotments, and wildlife protection.
But opposition to the NPPF is in danger of derailing this vision and condemning the millions of people who need decent, affordable homes to ongoing misery. If you want to stand up for affordable housing you can join the debate on twitter at #NPPF and register your support for the NPPF on the CLG website. Make sure that you contact your MP and the key ministers – Pickles, Clark and Shapps, - to show your support as well. We need to take the moral high ground in this debate and stand up for people who need decent housing.
*Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles