All posts tagged: cpre
Planning Minister Nick Boles flew the flag for a step change in development this week, when he called for England’s developed area to increase from 10 percent to 12 percent in order meet the country’s future housing needs. This provoked a great deal of excitement on the twittersphere where the usual suspects (the CPRE and the National Trust) lined up to denounce him. Boles’ argument was hijacked slightly by his comments about “pig-ugly” developments and the “moral right” to a house with a garden, but his central contention, that we have consistently failed to release enough land for housing, is sound.
Shaun Spiers at the CPRE, perhaps conscious that his organisation is losing the argument about the economic stimulus of housebuilding, resorted to patronising abuse, comparing Boles to Sir Keith Joseph, the “mad monk”. As ever, Spiers set out a highly misleading and disingenuous case against development, implying that our housing crisis can be solved just by building on brownfield land and bringing empty properties back into use. It can’t and he knows it. The CPRE also sought to throw some dodgy data into the debate by claiming that 12% of England is built upon when the true figure is 10 percent, and as Mark Easton shows in this piece, once you take out gardens and other open space the true figure for the urban footprint is just 2.3 percent.
At the risk of repeating myself, it’s worth outlining the scale of the problem with land and housing supply. Between now and 2033 232,000 new households will be created every year (mostly the result of us living longer and in smaller households). That means we need to build at least 250,000 homes in each of the next twenty years to meet demand and make up for past under-supply – a total of 5 million homes. Only 1.5 million can be built on brownfield (a figure accepted by the CPRE) and empty homes would make barely a dent in the total housing requirement. That leaves around 3.5 million homes that will have to be built on current countryside. But at a density of 30 to the hectare this would require only 1,000 square kilometres, which is just 2 percent of the unprotected countryside in England and only 1 percent of countryside as a whole. That is the stark reality of the choice facing the country - build the homes we need for today and tomorrow or appease a vocal minority of countryside lobbyists - and all credit to Nick Boles for raising the issue.
The CPRE appears to accept, grudgingly, that a little countryside may have to be built upon, but they draw a red line around the Green Belt, of which not one inch must be touched. What they don’t tell you is that the Green Belt more than doubled in size between 1978 and 2008 as this briefing to Parliament makes clear. How much of England do the CPRE and the countryside campaigners want? Is it reasonable that they should be allowed to hold to ransom the 90% of us who live in towns and cities?
In 1927, one of the founders of the CPRE, the architect Clough Williams Ellis, wrote a book “England and The Octopus” – a polemic against the sprawl of urban areas into the countryside. But the post-war creation of 17,000 square kilometers of Green Belt in England (13% of our land mass) means that we now have in place almost a mirror image of the picture painted by Williams Ellis, as this map from The Telegraph shows. Zoom in on York, London or Cambridge, for example, and you will see how the Green Belt now holds these cities in its suffocating grip, with tentacles extending deep into their hearts.
I don’t wish to hold myself up as a class warrior, but it’s worth pointing out that there is a subtle element of class snobbery and class self-interest in this battle over land. Take a look at the “The Proud City”, a wonderful film from 1945 that includes a monocle-wearing Sir Patrick Abercrombie, (one of the founders of the CPRE) telling the working classes how they should live. Watch it from 7.30 onwards; Harry Enfield could do no better. Abercrombie, of course, was the architect of the 1944 Greater London Plan that did so much to wreck London’s prosperity in the post-war years by sucking skilled workers and businesses out into the new towns. Fast forward to today, and the fact remains that the membership of the National Trust and the CPRE is made up overwhelmingly of white, middle class, middle-aged homeowners who have little understanding or empathy with the plight of those who want to buy or rent a home of their own. This is why it is so refreshing and surprising that a Conservative minister should be flying the flag for development and potentially upsetting his natural supporters in the process. As a sector we should be doing our utmost to support Nick Boles and to make a compelling case against the naysayers who want to preserve England in aspic.
This is a brief article about the power of images and the distortions of the media.
On the 12th September I wrote a blog for Inside Housing about the politics of the green belt and pointed out that papers like The Mail and The Telegraph, along with their allies in the countryside lobby, repeatedly use misleading images of ancient woodland and rolling countryside when they campaign against housing development, even though these landscapes are not at risk of being “concreted over”.
I made reference to the photograph in this Daily Mail article and wrote “I very much doubt that is Green Belt.” Study the photograph closely before you read on. Now have a look at this article in the Daily Telegraph. It is the same photograph but this time it is Tuscany, apparently. So is The Mail photograph Tuscany or not? On the balance of probabilities, I think it is. It is certainly not an English landscape so far as I can judge. Thanks to Alasdair Rae for spotting this, via Twitter. Private Eye covered this mistake in its latest edition, and the Mail has been advised of the error but they have not removed the photograph. So an average reader of the article will imagine a) that this image is of the green belt and b) that this landscape is under threat. Both untrue. It’s either deliberate propaganda or very lazy journalism.
The CPRE was at it again more recently. Their latest press campaign carried this image, supposedly of the green belt. Again, it is extremely unlikely that this landscape would ever be at risk. The National Planning Policy Framework is very explicit that landscape of poorer quality should be developed first. Yet the CPRE and their allies continue to propaganise in this way. I tweeted them to say that it would be more truthful and honest if they used images like this when they campaign about the threat to the green belt. No response.
Why is this important? Because a picture tells a thousand words, and if opponents of housebuilding continue to propagandise and manipulate images in this way the drip, drip effect will be immense. The public will be led to believe that the best landscapes are at risk, when they are not, and the prospects for a sensible planning and housing policy will be harmed. These media outlets and their NIMBY allies need to be challenged at every opportunity. As I’ve repeatedly argued in these blogs, we could build more than 3 million new homes on less than 1 percent of the English countryside. That means not one inch of the landscapes portrayed by the CPRE, The Mail and others would be at risk. I can’t speak for Tuscany!
Green belt policy represents a lazy consensus and should be challenged by the housing sector, writes Colin Wiles
Last week’s YouGov poll for The Sunday Times showed that the government’s planning reforms are broadly supported and opposed in equal measure by the public. But countryside campaigners have made much of the fact that the poll showed strong opposition to any development in the Green Belt. Only 14% were in favour and 78% against.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you find that the question asked by YouGov was this:
Q: Some people have suggested that the government should relax the planning rules in the Green belt in order to boost the economy by helping housebuilders. Other people think planning restrictions on the Green belt should remain tight to stop urban sprawl and the loss of green space.
Do you think think government should or should not relax planning laws in the Green Belt?
I call that rather a leading (or even misleading question). After all, who wants to help housebuilders? A more balanced question could have been:
Q: Some people have suggested that the government should relax the planning rules in the Green belt in order to provide the new homes that the country desperately needs and which cannot be provided within towns and cities due to lack of space. At the same time, additional Green Belt would be provided to replace the land built upon. Other people think planning restrictions on the Green belt should remain tight to stop urban sprawl and the loss of green space
Do you think think government should or should not relax planning laws in the Green Belt?
Would this have elicited a more favourable response? Perhaps. But it does indicate how little the public knows about the nature, scale and impact of the Green Belt, a situation that is not helped by the scaremongering and misinformation spread by countryside campaigners, such as this latest missive from the CPRE. They claim a chunk of the Green Belt the size of Slough is at risk from development. To put that into perspective Slough is 33 square kilometers, whereas the total area of the Green Belt is nearly 17,000 sq km. So less than one fifth of one percent of the Green Belt is “at risk” from development - a figure so minuscule that it does not even register on my cheap calculator. Let’s not forget that the Green Belt comprises 13 percent of England’s land area and has been massively extended in recent decades.
Which begs the question, what is the Green Belt for exactly? Contrary to public myth, its principal function is to prevent urban sprawl. It has no intrinsic aesthetic, amenity or public access value and a great deal of it comprises scrubby horse pasture, quarries, gravel pits, and other equally unattractive pieces of land – just drive around the M25 if you don’t believe me. Much of it is chemical-soaked fields that are a stranger to wildlife. But the very word “sprawl” is an out-of-date and emotive notion that reflects eighty-year old thinking. Ribbon development and sprawl did blight many of our cities in the thirties, but no one is talking about that now. Selective development on the Green Belt would involve well planned urban extensions that would create jobs and homes, open up green spaces to the public, encourage wildlife and help to reduce some of the toxic pollution and misery that is suffered by the millions of people who have to “jump” the Green Belt every day to get to work. Take Cambridge, where I live. Every day, 40,000 people struggle to get into the city, in most cases because they cannot afford to buy or rent within the city. They sit in their cars on the congested A14 looking out on groups of scruffy horses grazing on scrubby Green Belt land – the very land that is meant to improve their quality of life! Horses before people. You could not make it up!
Almost 90 percent of England’s population lives within the Green Belt and it has the potential to solve most of our housing problems. I have argued many times that the policy needs to be reviewed in order to build the homes we need and to provide breathing space for our increasingly dense urban areas, where open spaces and playing fields are being gobbled up by developers, creating an increasingly hemmed-in population.
Yet whenever anyone so much as mentions development on the Green Belt it elicits a furious response from the right-wing press and reactionary countryside campaigners. Part of the problem is with the word “Green” – it conjures up an image of a bucolic Merrie England, charming cottages nestling in rolling hills, just like the miseading picture in this Daily Mail editorial (I very much doubt that is Green Belt). “Green” is a misnomer. I propose we re-name it the “Red Belt” to reflect the asphyxiating impact it has on our towns and cities. But we also need to ensure that there is a more balanced debate about the role and status of the Green Belt. Luckily, time and population growth are on our side. Andrew Lainton, one of the fiercest supporters of the strategic role of the Green Belt and a prolific blogger on planning issues, appears to admit as much in his latest blog. We must either build on the Green Belt or plan for a new generation of garden cities beyond it. Or both.
But if we built on just 3 percent of the Green Belt we could provide 2 million homes, and 97 percent of it would be left untouched. The lost 3 percent could be added at the margins from unprotected countryside. Surely this is a win-win situation for everyone involved?
There has been much talk lately about a lazy consensus in the social housing sector. Well the Green Belt really does represent a lazy consensus in planning policy. It is a concept that is unfit for purpose. Our sector needs to challenge this consensus and make the case for smart growth on Green Belt land.
Last week’s publication of the National Planning Policy Framework left both sides in the debate claiming victory, which means either that the document was brilliantly drafted, or one side was either putting on an act or had misread the document - or both. I certainly think the final NPPF is a triumph of drafting – it seems to have pleased both sides and may end up pleasing neither - yet it seems to me that the bodies who opposed the draft NPPF, including the National Trust, the CPRE and the Daily Telegraph could hardly afford to lose face in public, given the amount of time and effort they had spent in attacking the government.
On the day that the NPPF was published I could not see a great deal of difference between the draft and the final versions. Of course there were changes of emphasis and the default yes to development had been removed but it seems to me that the final NPPF is overwhelmingly about growth, albeit sustainable growth, and that the repeated references to economic growth trump almost every other element of the policy framework, as Andy Boddington from the CPRE has manfully pointed out. I also predicted that the countryside lobby would seek to save face by claiming victory and I was right. Articles like this and this appeared over the next few days. The Daily Telegraph, (whose laughable “Hands off our Land” campaign failed to garner the support of their sceptical readers) even had the chutzpah to claim that six changes to the final NPPF had been their doing, (it was their “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” moment). It was therefore rather strange to see Simon Heffer in The Mail simultaneously taking the polar opposite view. Is the countryisde about to be concreted over or have the evil developers been sent packing? You can buy your paper and take your choice it seems.
This deliberate or unintended misreading of the new framework may come back to haunt some of these commentators. I hope it does. The NPPF’s emphasis upon economic growth is borne out by a brilliant word count of the 50-page document carried out by Mike Galloway, a Lib Dem councillor for Wolverton in Milton Keynes, who has looked at both the draft and the final document. His analysis reveals that the most frequently used words in the final NPPF are as follows:
- Plan/Plans/Planned/Planning - 689
- Development - 385
- Local - 349
- Site/Sites - 146
- Home/Homes/House/Housing - 110
- Sustainable/ Sustainability - 113
- Environment/Environmental - 96
The word ‘countryside’ appears only seven times. Overwhelmingly, these most frequently used words relate to growth, development, planning and localism. Encouragingly, the word “housing” appears almost three times more in the final document over the draft. These words speak for themselves and I truly hope that they will count for something in the future.
So after eight months of intense and often heated debate between pro-growth and anti-growth factions the revised National Planning Policy Framework was finally published this afternoon. We now have a working document that will set the tone and shape of planning policy for the foreseeable future.
It’s 47 pages plus appendices, 5 fewer than the draft, and replaces over 1,000 pages of previous planning policy including Planning Policy Guidance documents 1 – 20. As predicted, the document places a very heavy emphasis upon economic growth (a victory for George Osborne and the Treasury), balanced against social and environmental issues.
The key requirements on housing are retained. Local plans should “deliver a wide choice of high quality homes, widen opportunities for home ownership and create sustainable, inclusive and mixed communities.” Councils will have to carry out an objective strategic housing needs assessment, in partnership with other local authorities where housing markets cross boundaries, and provide the housing that is required. This includes providing for the size, type range and tenure of new homes, and proposals must take account of migration and other demographic change. Local plans will have to allocate, and update annually, a list of deliverable sites for new housing for the first five years of the plan, plus a 5 percent buffer (down from 20 percent in the draft). Authorities who have consistently failed to deliver new homes in the past will be put on the naughty step and forced to stick with the 20 percent buffer. Additional sites for years 6-10 and “where possible” for years 11-15 will also have to be identfied.
The key issues that upset some of the countryside lobby, like the National Trust and the CPRE (it must be remembered that the NFU and the Countryside Alliance supported the proposals) have been only slightly watered down, even though they are trying to spin the NPPF as a victory for their cause. The presumption in favour of sustainable development where plans are absent, silent or out of date is retained. In other words development will be presumed to be approved unless the “adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole”.
The NPPF also effectively ends the previous national brownfield-first policy, and local authorities will now be free to set their own targets, so there will longer be a national target for new homes being provided on brownfield land, something which pleases me greatly. This means that cities like Cambridge, which have been subject to unacceptable cramming on garden and brownfield land, can take a more balanced view about the future of previously developed land in the future.It is disappointing that the NPPF does not review the purpose and shape of the green belts, which do so much to cram us into the existing urban footprint at ever greater densities. But although green belts will retain their protection no new ones should be created unless there are “exceptional circumstances”. The NPPF also opens up the possibility of a new generation of Garden Cities to be built on greenfield land, including urban extensions that meet Garden City principles. This is one of Grant Shapps’s pet projects, via the Policy Exchange, and has to be welcomed by the housing sector.
Local authorities will be required to “take account” of the intrinsic value of the countryside, but I’m not sure how meaningful this is, when so many other clauses within the NPPF allow for greennfireld development. The feeling I’m getting from the Twittersphere this afternoon is that the countryside lobby is disappointed with the final document.
However, the NPPF places a huge emphasis upon localism and the local plan. In the absence of national and regional targets I’m still worried that the local planning process could end up being a NIMBY charter. If it is only the well-heeled and the well-housed who engage with their local planning authorities we could end up with plans that do not meet the needs of all the people, the housed and unhoused, the poor and the rich. That is why it is important for our local councils to engage effectively and constructively with their communities and for housing providers to get stuck into their local planning process. The ball is in our court now.
Like kids waiting for Christmas, the main protagonists in the NPPF debate are displaying a mix of anxiety, excitement and apprehension as they await the publication of the final version of the document, due to be published on Budget day. The twittersphere is erupting in spasmodic bursts of bad temper between the pro and anti factions. After a long and sustained campaign for and against, the final NPPF is bound to cause upset on one side and exhiliration on the other, unless it turns out to be a classic English fudge that pleases no one.
Meanwhile, the rumours are flying. This began with Newsnight’s report on the 6th March claiming that the NPPF would be published unchanged and that Pickles had received a grilling from the pro-growth Chancellor. Osborne’s sense of urgency reminds me of Labour’s slogan from the 1945 election: “Let’s Build the Houses, Quick”. The story of an unchanged NPPF was confirmed by Inside Housing on the 8th March. But then up pops The Telegraph with a worrying story that the NPPF would be significantly modified including a re-affirmation of the brownfield-first policy and the scrapping of the requirement to identify 20 percent additional land for housebuilding in years one to five.
If so, that is a worrying development. Brownfield first has distorted land prices and caused city cramming on a dangerous scale. We need to take a more objective look at brownfield land rather than building on every scrap of it. Yesterday I took the train from Brighton to St Pancras and London is looking increasingly dense. Historic monuments like St Pauls and the Tower of London are being swallowed up in a sea of huge new buildings. The same thing is in happening in Liverpool where the UNESCO world heritage status of the Three Graces is threatened. Do we really want to destroy the heritage of our cities so that Lord Rogers and his urban task force friends can have the satisfaction of surveying the “dense polycentric city” from their country retreats?
Either way, when the final NPPF is issued you can expect an almighty row. If it really is published unchanged, the National Trust and the CPRE will no doubt be mobilising their members across the shires in ways that are as yet unthought of and the Trust’s Director General will retreat with her tail between her legs to the Master’s Lodge at Emmanuel College (worryingly close to where I live). But if the document is altered in the way that The Telegraph suggests you can expect the opponents of the NPPF to be jubilant. Toad Hall and its precious countryside will have been protected once more from the nasty urban stoats and weasels who seek to destroy its sanctity. Watch this space.
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.
It seems the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England are becoming desperate. Over the past six months they’ve run a brilliant scaremongering campaign against the draft National Planning Policy Framework, claiming that the government is putting the entire countryside at risk of development. But on Monday they issued a report claiming that, in fact, the opposite is true and that the NPPF will have very little impact upon growth and new development. Confused? Read on.
The draft NPPF was launched last July and was met with a barrage of opposition from groups like the National Trust and the CPRE - although it’s interesting that the people who actually live and work in the countryside, like the NFU and the Countryside Alliance, support the NPPF. They know that the countryside has to be a living, working place where development is essential for its long-term prosperity.
The re-drafted NPPF is out shortly, and everyone in the housing world should be hoping that three of its core principles are retained. First, a plan-led approach – where local authorities set out the housing and other needs of their district and allocate the land to meet them, whilst preserving the best landscapes. Second, a presumption in favour of sustainable development where land is allocated for a specific purpose, or where plans are silent. Third, no return to a blanket brownfield-first policy, which did so much damage to some of our urban areas.
The government, to their credit, believes that the planning system acts a brake on growth and fails to deliver the homes we need at a price we can afford. That is certainly the view of most credible commentators on land use and planning.
But this latest report commissioned by the National Trust/CPRE (and written by an economics outfit called Vivid), takes the opposite view. As an exercise in evasion, dissembling and obfuscation it’s hard to beat and makes for an hilarious read, since both organisations appear to have moved from a position where the entire countryside is at risk of being “concreted over” to a position where none of it is now at risk! Or at least in the “short term”. The report aims to prove its point by bringing in all manner of non-economic issues, but its basic headline is that planning reform won’t boost growth. I can only guess that this bizarre volte face is based on their view that the NPPF is a Treasury-led document and that if the economic arguments are undermined then the whole document will fall.
Yet the National Trust/CPRE have always put forward the firm view that planning controls do not act as a barrier to economic growth, so it is axiomatic, by their lights, that any change to the planning rules won’t affect growth. This report is therefore internally incoherent and a pointless commission! Not only that, but its conclusions are refuted by a plethora of more credible reports, notably Kate Barker’s 2004 and 2006 reports on housing affordability and land use, and a series of reports from the LSE’s Spatial Economics Research Centre, which all show that our planning system hinders economic growth, raises house prices and increases market volatility. Who would you rather believe in this debate?
So this really is desperate stuff on the part of the National Trust and CPRE. The problem with scaremongering is that it can come back to hit you in the face. Like the boy who cried wolf, people stop believing you after a while. I’ve consistently argued in these blogs (and the CPRE, at least, seem to accept this), that we need to build at least 5 million homes over the next 20 years to cope with population grown. No more than 2 million can be built on brownfield sites (and I think the CPRE accepts that as well), which leaves 3 million to be built beyond the existing urban footprint, either on well-planned urban extensions or new settlements. But this is where the National Trust and the CPRE fall silent (actually the Trust is pretty clueless on housing issues). Rather than engaging in a rational grown-up debate about how and where we should build these new homes, and protect the best countryside into the bargain, they rely on scaremongering or emotive terms like “sprawl” and “concreting over the countryside” to make their arguments. It’s like a child sticking its fingers in its ears and screaming. No sensible local authority, with a sensible local plan in place, is planning to create sprawl or “concrete over the countryside”. What’s more even if three million homes were built on greenfield land this would take up only about two thirds of one percent of the existing countryside, or just 1.3 percent of the unprotected countryside.
The National Trust and the CPRE really should re-think their tactics. After all, we all know what happened to the boy who cried wolf.
Consultation on the draft National Planning Policy framework ended yesterday. The document, which aims to reduce 1,000 pages of planning policy into a mere 52 pages, has been attacked by environmentalists because it allows a presumption in favour of sustainable development where local plans do not exist or are silent, and because it ends the current brownfield first policy.
The past three months has seen one of the most intense and polarised public debates of recent times. On one side we had the National Trust leading the charge on behalf of the Ian Paisley school of planning (No! No! No!) pitted against the government and the Home Builder’s Federation on the other. It’s been full of sound and fury but does it signify anything?
The National Trust dominated the debate, and ran an impressive, albeit scaremongering, campaign, writing to every one of its 4 million members and tweeting up to 100 times a day to rally their troops. Supporters of the NPPF, including the CIH and the NHF, were strangely silent. Yet after three months of hard campaigning the Trust could only muster 200,000 signatures for their oxymoronic “Planning for People” Campaign – just 5% of their members. For me, this highlights the fact that planning has become detached from the people. Few of us understand the complexities of our planning system. Yet everyone knows what good and bad planning looks like. On this basis I think the noble aim of the NPPF, to simplify planning policy, is absolutely right.
The National Trust’s campaign also skated over the fact that the NPPF will retain existing protections of the green belt, the national parks, SSSIs and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty – and these represent 45% of England’s area. Only 9% of England is built upon and half of that is parks and back gardens, which often harbour more wildlife than the surrounding countryside.
In last week’s House of Lords debate one of the best contributions was made by Richard Rogers, who said:
“I believe the only sustainable form of development is the compact, polycentric city, which is well-connected and encourages walking and the use of public transport, where public spaces and buildings are well-designed and the poor and rich can live in close proximity. The intensification of existing settlements is economically efficient because it optimises the use of existing infrastructure and the embedded energy within schools, hospitals, roads and homes. Cities such as Vancouver, Portland, New York, especially Manhattan, and compact European cities are more than five times as energy efficient as sprawling cities such as Detroit, Phoenix and Los Angeles.”
Few people could disagree with that and the argument against sprawl is well made. I agree also with Boris Johnson who spoke at the Tory conference about putting the village back into the city, creating neighbourhoods, growing urban food, encouraging people to walk and cycle to work, building social capital and reducing the use of energy. The future of the planet depends upon the success of cities. But Rogers ignores some simple mathematics. Our population is set to grow significantly over the next few decades. Nearly six million new households will form by 2033, meaning we have to build at least 5 million new homes over the next 20 years. At most, brownfield land can only accommodate 2 million new homes, which means we will need to extend our towns and cities into the countryside and build new settlements to accommodate the remaining 3 million. But even these 3 million new homes will only take up little more than 1 percent of the remaining countryside that is unprotected, and we are talking here about the grotty scrubland that often surrounds many of our towns and cities, not the best landscape by any means. So the National Trust’s claims of “concreting over the countryside” are disingenuous and misleading.
It is this long-term growth issue that has been completely ignored by the National Trust and the CPRE during this campaign. I pressed them repeatedly to reveal their policies on the need for long-term housing growth and they repeatedly avoided the issue.
The NPPF is not perfect. It needs tweaking. In particular, it needs to include targets and mechanisms for the provision of affordable housing, because a bottom up approach based on local needs alone will not provide the homes we need. How can a local assessment take into account in-migration and growth that is important to the national economy? But the NPPF is on the money for two key reasons. Firstly, its simplification and devolution of the planning system will bring planning back to the people. Secondly, the prospect of more land being released for housing means that this is the best opportunity in a generation to build the homes that we need in order to make housing affordable to the millions who are currently priced out of the market.
For those reasons I hope the government sticks to its guns and does not change the NPPF in any significant way.
Simon Jenkins is a good journalist and a good historian. But it seems that he is also something of a Jekyll and Hyde character.
As Chairman of the National Trust he is running a misleading and dishonest campaign against the government’s sensible planning reforms. The Trust believes that the planning process should be completely neutral and should not promote growth. They don’t appear to want a single scrap of countryside to be built upon, (even though they themselves built 200 homes in the grounds of their Cliveden estate in the heart of the green belt.)
But Simon Jenkins the journalist thinks that London needs a new airport and that it should be built upon the “wilderness” of the North Kent Marshes - much to the annoyance of local countryside campaigners. Writing in the Evening Standard on the 20th September he describes the North Kent marshes as “ a wilderness of marginal farms, oil terminals, squatter settlements and acres of mud and marsh. Is it not the best place for a vast fourth London international airport?”
I was so shocked by this example of double standards that I asked the National Trust to confirm if building a massive airport on the “wilderness” of Kent was their official policy. Their response was: “This article wasn’t written in Simon Jenkins’ capacity as National Trust chairman.” What! Can you imagine the Chair of the HCA lobbying for affordable housing and then writing an article saying that all social housing should be sold off? He would be sacked on the spot.
Simon Jenkins the National Trust Chairman seems to be very badly briefed. In an article in The Times on the 20th Sept he makes a schoolboy howler with his figures, claiming that the green belts and areas of outstanding natural beauty represent only 14% of rural England. In fact they represent about 31% of the whole area of England. With the National Parks and SSIS a total of 45 percent of England is protected, and will continue to be protected under the draft National Planning Policy Framework.
In the same article Jenkins goes on to make a couple of ludicrous statements: “Builders are not interested in so-called brownfield sites because they are less desirable.” So builders weren’t interested in Canary Wharf, Westfield and a host of other urban regeneration projects? Has he never heard of Location, Location, Location? Then he writes: “As for defining as “sustainable” anything that yields jobs or profit, this is palpably absurd.” I don’t think the thousands of people employed in sustainable forestry or organic farming would agree with that statement.
To be honest I’m not quite clear why the National Trust is so engaged in the NPPF fight and why they are being taken so seriously by the Daily Telegraph and others. Not a single National Trust property will be affected by the NPPF proposals, and as I have written before, even if we built 250,000 homes a year for the next ten years only around a third of one percent of countryside would be affected by new housing. I know that many National Trust members are troubled by their latest campaign and will be concerned about the apparent hypocrisy of their Chairman.
The fact is that we will have to build at least 5 million homes over the next twenty years to redress past under-supply and deal with household growth (nearly 6 million new households will form by 2033). No more than 2 to 3 million of these new homes can be built within existing urban areas, which leaves 2 million to be built beyond the urban envelope. That is a long-term reality that countryside campaigners simply cannot ignore. Over the past three weeks I have repeatedly asked the National Trust and the CPRE to point me to their detailed policies on housing and population growth, setting out how they would meet the housing needs of the country. They have declined to do so. The truth is that that they have no credible policies on growth. Their policy is no more sophisticated than “Keep off our Land.” I much prefer Inside Housing’s “Get on our Land” campaign.
The problem is that the voices of the homeless and badly housed are not being heard in this debate. It is the well housed and the well heeled who are dominating the discourse. But the National Trust does not speak for me and I hope it does not speak for you either. As the Trust’s Director General Fiona Reynolds once said, “The Trust, I’ll be honest, can be seen as an organisation that’s middle-class and slightly remote.”
I think that hits the nail on the head.
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
I’ve always disliked the National Trust. I hate their twee, tacky giftshops and their bossy staff and the way they prissify and ossify our once-shaggy landed estates. But now my dislike has an additional justification - for the Trust’s campaign against proposed planning reforms in the draft National Policy Planning Framework is an utter disgrace.
Their website calls for the public’s support with these words: “Want to stand up for the everyday places you love? Support us in our opposition of government’s proposed planning reform by signing our petition.” The CPRE is no better, saying that, “the protection of precious countryside is going to be seriously weakened.”
This is hysterical tosh.
Reading this stuff would make you believe two falsehoods. One, that all of the land outside our towns and cities is precious and worth preserving at all costs, and two, that we live in a grossly overcrowded country, where the best parts of the countryside are about to be concreted over. In fact, the propaganda of the National Trust and the CPRE has obviously had an effect because Kate Barker commissioned a survey several years ago which showed that more than half the population believes that 50 percent of England is built upon. The true figure is around 10 percent and a significant proportion of that comprises parks and gardens. The Green Belt is 13 percent of our land and National Parks another 9 percent. In Holland, 20 percent of land is built upon.
The government’s sensible planning proposals, set out in the draft NPPF, mean that the Green Belt National Parks and areas of outstanding beauty will still be protected and local plans will protect those areas of landscape that local communities value. There will be a bigger emphasis upon community control of planning policies. If anything, the proposals are a charter for nimbysim. The biggest change is that, in the absence of a local plan or of national controls there will be a presumption in favour of development. And that makes sense. For too long our arcane planning system has hindered reasonable development. Kate Barker said we need 250,000 homes a year to restore balance to our housing markets – but we are building less than half of that figure. And more of these homes need to be the homes that people want – suburban houses with gardens close to existing towns and places of work. This means town extensions.
In Cambridge, where I live, 45,000 people have to jump the Green Belt every day, at great expense to their nerves and the environment, because the rigid planning girdle around the city has prevented development and forced house prices to ludicrous levels. Yet much of the Green Belt is marginal land that would benefit our economy and our environment if it were well developed. In fact, much our so-called precious countryside comprises chemical soaked fields that are inaccessible to the public. The bucolic vision of country life set out in The Archers (another pet hate!) is a myth. The average suburban garden contains much more wildlife than the average acre of countryside. The Royal Horticultural Society has described suburban gardens as “brilliant for wildlife.”
Even if every village in England agreed to build 20 new homes it would produce 135,000 homes. As David Orr says, “The absence of development is leading to the slow death of some villages as the school, the pub, the shop all close for the lack of the half a dozen new homes that would ensure young families can stay. New development in our towns and cities keeps the economy growing – and new mixed tenure, mixed income housing development in particular is critical for sustained economic growth.”
The Barbour brigade of the National Trust and the CPRE don’t appear to give a damn about affordable housing or the predicament of the millions of people in this country who cannot afford to buy or rent a home. Their selfish “I’m All Right Jack” attitude needs to be challenged. Tweet or write to your MP or ministers and tell them that you support their reforms to the planning system. It’s time to stand up for housing.