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Radical housing speech elicits wave of politeness from planners

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Last month I was one of the speakers at the RTPI summer school in Exeter. I spoke the day after Lord Falconer, who began his talk with a ringing 'Good evening, scholars', to which his audience responded 'Good evening, Minister'. As polite, Lord Falconer told them, 'as prep school pupils 30 years ago'.After this exchange, the minister philosophised that housing too was as hot a topic today as it had been 30 years ago. The only difference was that, in those days, Labour won general elections on the strength of how many houses it would build: nowadays it won them on the basis of how few houses it would build - in the countryside of course.Elsewhere they were to pack them in at 60 dwellings per hectare instead of 30.

From the rest of his speech, the minister confined himself to the party line, whose indigestible syntax he kept under control by reading from a script that urged patience upon his planner audience, in return for a 'thorough spring-cleaning of the planning system' that would benefit them all.This meant, he said, 'e-government', 'transparent Section 106 agreements', 'planning portals', non-mandatory good practice guidance', 'more respect for planners', more 'affordable homes' and, perhaps even an increase in planning fees to match.

As I sat in the packed lecture hall at Exeter University listening to this jargon-ridden monologue, I reflected on the other housing news that the minister was not going to talk about.

Neither he, nor any of the few polite questioners who followed him, thought to contrast the recent £250 million grant for starter homes with the £7 billion lent by banks and building societies since Labour came to power - not to new homeowners, but to a paltry 135,000 new landlords under buyto-let schemes at an average of more than £50,000 a house. These billions, plus the colossal sums of money advanced each month by the same lenders to house buyers, re-financers and speculators, add up to an phenomenon far larger than the creeping 'intensification' of urban and rural development by means of PPG3, PPG13 and the pernicious, car-less Poundbury, which finds its way into every slide presentation on this subject.

On the following day I made my own presentation which, in general and particular, turned the programme, outlined by Lord Falconer and later speakers, on its head. I argued that in view of the globalisation of food production and the contracting of farming there was no physical shortage of land on which to build. The only obstacle was the arbitrary distinction between greenfield and brownfield land enforced by planning law. By repealing or amending the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act so as to remove this obstacle, not only could sufficient building land for any eventuality immediately be made available, but the problems of inadequate and inefficient transport, crime and insecurity that plague the cities would be eased by a reduction in their densities. However, these advantages would only be realised if new rural settlements were built at low densities - maximum four dwellings per hectare - and planned as nodes on an omnidirectional network, with distances appropriate to an assumption of 100 per cent adult car ownership and easy access to out-oftown distribution centres. In the opposite way, access to these new rural settlements from existing cities would be by means of public transport and hire car using a reverse park-and-ride principle.

This vision of a new rural landscape found no friends at the summer school, where later speakers even enthused over the discovery of densities of 200 dwellings per hectare in Heritage Kendal.However, Lord Falconer was right about one thing.

Planners are very polite.

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