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Back to the future on new town development

Paul Finch
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An unlikely meeting of Labour and Conservative minds on the housing shortage is unlikely to result in anything actually getting built, says Paul Finch

The two main political parties may have had difficulty in agreeing on what to do about Brexit, but peace appears to have broken out between them in respect of what to do about the housing shortage, particularly in London.

Slightly surprisingly, the peace pact looked as though it was signed and sealed at a Policy Exchange meeting, as reported in Property Week last week, under the following near-unbelievable headline: ‘Key Labour and Conservative figures back new town agenda’. Yes indeed: dirigiste planning under a public sector-led programme is back on the agenda, decades after the last new town was wound up and returned to its host local authority.

You can’t keep a good idea down, however, and after acknowledging that ‘place-making’ was a phrase ‘often used without meaning’ (you can say that again), and that nimbyism was rife, no less a grandee than philosophy don Oliver Letwin MP supported the idea proposed in a Policy Exchange document, that the answer to that darned housing shortage is to build ‘millennial towns’ on green belt land around London.

In this he was supported by two other speakers at the event, Labour’s new shadow housing minister Alex Cunningham, and Yolanda Barnes, professor of real estate at University College London. There was an implicit connection with Policy Exchange’s support for the ‘building beautiful’ initiative, not least since Letwin has been talking about beauty as public policy for years. He would have made a better chairman of the government’s commission on the subject than the ill-fated Roger Scruton.

What seems extraordinary, given Policy Exchange’s profound belief that the free market can solve all problems, is the implicit acknowledgement via this report that it can do no such thing, and that we need a big government policy to kick-start a major building programme. Harlow, anyone?

The garden cities idea is just puffery masquerading as thought-through policy

Needless to say, this was music to the ears of Cunningham, who wittily made the point that for every press release from government on the subject of ‘garden cities’, a grand total of 40 homes per release had actually been built. Like ‘eco-towns’, the garden cities idea is just puffery masquerading as thought-through policy.

Incidentally, neither Letwin nor Cunningham had anything to offer on exactly where their favoured new towns might actually be located (too difficult) but were jolly keen on taxing increases in land values that arise from planning permissions anywhere. Professor Barnes was worried about this sort of policy, aimed at penalising housebuilders, ‘because they are the only bloody show in town’.

A very good point – unless government picks up the idea of new town development corporations, public funding, and a major planning review of planning not just in and around London, but across the whole of the South East.

I am not holding my breath.

Talking about beauty…

An excellent report by four practices – HTA Design, Pollard Thomas Edwards, PRP and Proctor & Matthews – suggests how housing could be made high-quality and with local distinctiveness (which might even by defined as beautiful). How will the Beauty Commission respond, having already said it distrusts architects – even though two of its advisers are said professionals, namely Sunand Prasad and Paul Monaghan?

If designers are disqualified from being on the commission, you might wonder why they want to have anything to do with it. Obviously, people who have never designed anything – like the commission’s new acting chairman – are far preferable, being amateurs, not professionals. How encouraging that the old distinctions are alive and well in whizzy 21st century Blighty.

Incidentally, why is it that four practices who have a vested interest, since they design substantial amounts of housing, have to make the running on this issue? Why isn’t it the RIBA? The answer is that the institute abandoned housing as a major policy issue years ago, in favour of letting interested practices take up the baton. Its ‘expert advisory group’ on the subject rarely meets. The only reason Whitehall listens to the RIBA on housing is because the current president happens to know what he is talking about.

Strategic influence is hard-earned but, alas, all too easily lost.

Words without meaning

Back to philosophy sage Oliver Letwin. Here is his considered comment on what size his proposed millennial new towns should be: ‘In some cases they can be quite large if we get them right’. This is what is known as politician-speak. They really are masters of the meaningless platitude.

Oliver letwin shutterstock

Oliver letwin shutterstock

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