Posted by: Colin Wiles20/02/2012
My last blog “Crying Wolf in the Countryside” obviously hit a raw nerve with the National Trust, because one of their Directors, Ben Cowell, has written a piece for their website objecting to my description of the Trust as “pretty clueless on housing.”
Describing me as “One of the National Trust’s fiercest critics in the debate over the NPPF” (I can live with that!) Ben argues that the Trust has a long and proud record of involvement in housing. He points out that Octavia Hill, the patron saint of housing management, was one of the National Trust’s founders and that the Trust has 2,000 tenants and is a housing developer in its own right.
I fully accept these points, although Ben omits to mention that the Trust has also built homes against fierce local opposition, notably when they developed an exclusive gated development of 200 homes at Cliveden in the green belt. What I should have said, of course, is that the Trust is “pretty clueless about housing numbers.”
Ben accepts that some homes will have to be built on greenfield land but as usual is evasive about how many should be built and where they should be built. The National Trust will not or cannot accept the fact that we will need to build at least 3 million homes on greenfield land over the next twenty years and it is this lack of honesty on the part of countryside campaigners that is the real problem with the NPPF debate.
Ben’s final point that building on only 1.3 percent of the unprotected countryside is too high a price to pay for meeting the country’s housing needs is where we part company. I think it’s a small price to pay, and well-planned developments would help us to protect and enhance the best landscapes.
His strange calculation that 3 million new homes in the countryside would require half as many roads as we have already makes no logical sense and rather proves my point about the Trust’s cluelessness. Given that we already have 22 million homes how would 3 million new homes increase the amount of land required for roads by 50 per cent?
Ben makes the valid point that Octavia Hill campaigned for open space to go alongside housing. That is why I believe a blanket brownfield-first policy is so misguided. When brownfield land becomes available in our towns and cities we need to analyse the costs and benefits of developing it. In some cases it may make more sense to return brownfield land to open space or to urban food production rather than cramming new homes onto every inch of our already dense cities. I’m sure Octavia Hill would approve of such an approach.
Steve Hilditch at the respected Red Brick blog has also joined the debate, pointing out that the NPPF contains no housing targets at regional and national level. I completely agree, and that is the greatest defect in the NPPF, but it is still a step in the right direction towards releasing the land that we need to address our housing crisis. He also makes the salient point that the National Trust is too close to the CPRE (“an organisation that does not in my view have progressive leanings”) and it is interesting to note that the NT and the CPRE have worked almost hand in glove on the anti-NPPF campaign, Of course the Trust’s Director General is a former head of the CPRE and I understand several senior CPRE staff came with her. But the Trust may come to regret this lack of independence as I sense a growing unease among some Trust members about the elitism and politicisation of their anti-NPPF campaign, as indicated by the comment from disillusioned Trust member Lorna underneath Ben’s blog.
In the meantime, we await the publication of the revised NPPF, due out very shortly. You can expect the debate to heat up considerably from publication day onwards.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles