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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Black

Most Sensational, Inspirational, Celebrational, Muppetational.......

As per usual on Saturday lunchtime I tuned into one of my regular favourites on Radio 4 – Any Questions. This week, it came from University of Cranfield in Bedford and featured the Associate editor of the Financial Times, Stephen Bush; Labour MP for Bristol West and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Thangam Debbonaire; Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce UK, Paul Drechsler; and the Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk and Minister for Science, Research and Innovation George Freeman.

The final question of the show (about 38 minutes in) asked The population is grown and aging we know that house building can help the economy but are we danger of turning the UK into a giant housing estate at the expense of green space and countryside?

The question itself shows the level of shear paranoia that is endemic across the country and that people genuinely imagine a future where there is nothing left of our green and pleasant land. It also is indicative of the attitude that, left to their own devices, developers would concrete over the countryside with housing. Both wrong.

Stephen Bush kicked things off by saying that most of the UK is not built upon, well that is correct!!. In fact the BBC reports it at being just 9% (much lower than many people assume!)

He then went onto say this - One of the problems with our current regulations is that we make it much easier to build on parks and bit of green spaces where people live than we do for cities and towns to expand.

Eh? Of course – I went for a walk in Richmond Park with the dog this morning and someone had built a housing estate there! His impression of the system is simply not true. We have a brownfield first planning system in this country but, as has been shown time and time again, there simply isn’t enough of it.

He went on to say we struggle to build enough houses where people want to live but also build houses that make places less livable and less pleasant. Planning bill at start of this parliament that had to be retreated from because of internal opposition in the conservative party.

Again correct. And this is part of the problem isn't it. We’ve been waiting almost 3 years for the government to get its act in gear and the dither and delay has led to countless local authorities delaying their own plan making in the hope of change to the way in which housing need is calculated.

George Freeman was next up and had this to say. – we do have to build a lot more houses. The real issue is how. We have ended up with a model of a housing market which isn’t working. In my part of the world we see quite lazy house dumping of urban sprawl on the outskirts of villages and towns because it is the easiest place to dump it. By the way they're not very net zero, these are brick houses built the traditional way by traditional builders.

I agree that our housing market isn’t working. But the notion that housing is somehow dumped in some kind of lazy way is utterly wrong.

George went on to say We are not allowing ourselves to plan properly. Our planning system is based on councils receiving proposals from developers on where they would like to build and then having some basis on which to judge them. I would like to see us hit this number and think we could do this a lot more quickly by putting a new town in every county. I could find several places in Norfolk where you could put a beautiful new town – 30-50,000 houses with real infrastructure, schools, hospitals on a railway line. Building a few net zero garden villages instead of this awful business of urban sprawl and housing on the outskirts of everything.

Hang on – he’s talking about a new town the size of Welwyn or Letchworth. How long would that take to deliver? Maybe garden villages do play a role in delivery of housing but proposals at that scale take a generation to deliver. The country needs housing and it needs it now.

Thangham Debonaire put the labour perspective on things. Of course we don’t want to cover the entire country with housing estates but we do also need housing. We need to look at things like retrofit. Ensuring offices aren’t just turned into egg boxes but good homes that are warm that are net zero and that can sustain and regrow our town centres and city centres but not at the expense of retail and other places to work. We need net zero places that make a real neighbourhood. We need to think about how we can make housing that can be used in different stages in our lives. It will take imagination, reforms to planning and will power that says we should not be building houses that isn’t fit for future.

Paul Drechsler said that he was not persuaded either party has a real plan to deliver the housing we need. I completely agree. Labour has consistently failed to outline what it would do dramatically differently in terms of planning reform.

On this note, the host of AQs pressed George Freeman on planning reform saying that it is often so contentious in your party that it is often just junked isn’t it?

Freeman responded that his approach would be to localise planning. You can put the housing where you want it and you can keep the proceeds of growth into public service and we can change the conversation. If we gave people more powers to plan and manage their housing and keep the benefits and proceeds of growth I think we create a renaissance of local democracy.

But how does that square with what he was saying about new towns. You cant localise top down planning reform of that kind. People simply wont support it. And his government already have localised planning through continued support for Neighbourhood Planning and where has that got us?

Many other commentators repeatedly tell us that we need to have a serious conversation about planning reform, or about the green belt, or about politics for planning. For me, until politicians on both sides of the house properly recognise the issues at heart and how the planning system does work but can work. Then it will continue to be business (or lack of it) as usual.


My own thoughts.


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