Planning portal: The ‘no ideas please, we’re British’ problem is not specific to garden cities, writes Peter Stewart
The promoters of the 2014 Wolfson Prize, awarded for new ideas about garden cities - and the winner, Urbed - deserve praise. But it was criticism of the winning entry from the government’s housing and planning minister, Brandon Lewis, that attracted the most attention. It just goes to show how hard it is promote large-scale development in the UK that is underpinned by anything that looks like an idea or a proposition.
It can be harder to gain planning approval for something interesting than for something mediocre. Keep below the radar, don’t frighten the horses and you might stand a chance. Come up with a bold idea and you are likely to be in trouble. Sadly, the same applies to solving the housing crisis. Most of the new housing built by the volume house builders is dire but, as it’s the same all over the country, it’s hard to find a convincing reason to resist any particular example and schemes are waved through with little discussion about their quality.
The ‘no ideas please, we’re British’ problem is not specific to garden cities. A similar reaction is likely to greet anyone who promotes a coherent, organised way of expanding a settlement, as opposed to just throwing up more boxes in whatever fields have been made available.
Yet, just as we will only have enough energy to meet our needs in future if we use a bit of everything available to us, so we would improve the chances of building new homes in the numbers needed, and providing a variety of solutions to what is not a uniform demand, if we welcomed specific, well-considered proposals - premiated by a well-informed judging panel - rather than indulging in grandstanding criticisms.
‘Choice’ is something the present administration promotes in health and education but, judging from the minister’s reaction to the Urbed scheme, not in how new housing is brought forward - although his government’s National Planning Policy Framework specifically calls for a ‘wide choice’ in housing provision, and says that large settlements - including garden cities - may be part of the answer. The government line is that the days of the top-down, ‘imposed’ solution are over - and this ideology casts the likes of Urbed either as heirs of the amateur Ebenezer Howard or the statist technocrats of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation.
Holding on to the rhetoric of Localism, the minister wants to see instead the bottom-up, locally generated plans that were meant to emerge from neighbourhood planning. Schemes promoted by local people do exist, but they are rare and typically involve small numbers of homes - of little use in meeting the national need. The bulk of what actually gets built has nothing at all to do with Localism. What Urbed offer, whichLewis calls ‘sprawl’, is specifically conceived as an alternative to the sprawl that is happening everywhere now.
Meanwhile the planning system churns out dreary documents that no one reads in the name of ‘managing development’. There is no appetite and few mechanisms for the public sector to put forward big, positive, sophisticated propositions. The private sector, also plagued by short-termism, has learnt that doing the same thing as last time is best for the balance sheet. A constant stream of UK practitioners undertake study tours to admire exemplar developments abroad and return depressed at our inability to match what is done in such places - not because of lack of talent, but because of stultifying institutional and administrative arrangements.
The brief for the Wolfson prize was: ‘How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?’ The first part of my answer would be: go abroad.
Peter Stewart is founder of Peter Stewart Consultancy and author of the urbanist blog, The Gutter and The Stars