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Talking Houses by Colin Ward

Ward’s radical ideas appear pertinent amid this planning chaos, writes Charles Holland

I think it’s fair to say that current government policy regarding planning is a hopeless, contradictory mess. Recent policy statements have veered between so-called ‘muscular localism’ and centralised overriding of local planning decisions. Commitments to building affordable housing are likely to be torn up, and there is to be a temporary relaxation of the need for planning approval of domestic extensions.

I’ve been noting these announcements whilst reading Talking Houses, a collection of the late Colin Ward’s lectures on planning and the environment. This has been particularly interesting because there are aspects of planning deregulation that he might have approved of.

Ward was a lifelong anarchist and a sceptic when it came to any form of centralised power. His career as a writer spanned the second half of the 20th century, taking in the Local Authority building programme of the 1950s and 60s and the right-to-buy revolution of the 1980’s. Ward was equally critical of both approaches. Although he was on the political left, he disagreed with what he saw as Labour’s embracement of “bureaucratic managerialism”, regarding at as an infringement of personal liberty. At the same time, he saw through the Tories’ libertarian cant.

Ward argued instead in favour of ‘dweller control’, and the right for people to construct their own houses. He criticised the legislation that seeks to limit such activities, suggesting that only a self-built environment would allow people to live in peaceful co-existence with the land and one another.

The closest model we have to what Ward meant are the ‘Plotland’ developments of southeast England; higgledy-piggledy landscapes of folk-architecture intermingled with gardens, allotments and small-holdings.

Ward was not without his faults – his rigid scepticism about the role of the state is questionable – but his thinking seems particularly pertinent when the government is intent on tearing up the planning rulebook for all the wrong reasons. While disagreeing with their motives for doing so, it’s worth reading someone with genuinely radical ideas about how to deliver houses for all.

Charles Holland is a director of FAT

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