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What should the politicians really be saying?

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As election fever kicks in, Paul Finch looks at what the political parties should be saying in their manifestos

Given the opening shots in the electoral campaign, focusing on the economy, Europe and the NHS (aren’t you already feeling numbed?), it seems inevitable that these mega-issues will squeeze out much discussion on housing, planning and the built environment.

Yet the latter are crucial to the ongoing success of the UK economy, whatever party or coalition ends up running the country later in the year. Since amnesia seems to be the current condition affecting discussion of these matters, it is worth rehearsing what the political parties should be encouraged to say in their manifestos.

Fundamental to any decent built environment policy is the recognition that quantity and quality should not be seen as mutually exclusive. This is particularly important in relation to housing: we have seen the consequences of abandoning design quality, which are costly and destructive.

Second, any government should commit itself to supporting and promoting planning and planners as the essential levers in the construction of better buildings and environments. Planning is essentially proactive by definition, since it is about shaping the future.

However, it can become a brake on development and growth if it is abused by politicians for their own electoral or ideological programmes, the decision about expanding airport capacity being a case in point. Blaming planners is a futile and dishonest response to government indecision.

Third, politicians should stop telling lies about the inevitability and desirability of building on green belt as the only way to house people, particularly in London and the South East. Densification of cities, with amenities and public space to match, should not be a matter of party politics, but of a shared vision for, in the words of the AJ campaign, ‘More homes, better homes’, which I hope will continue this year.

Fourth, any government which wishes to address the housing shortage will need to take a more dirigiste attitude to construction by the public sector, directly or indirectly, to complement the activities of the private house-building sector.

The latter cannot, and should not be expected to, run a social housing programme, nor even an ‘affordable’ programme. Taxing providers is a dumb way to encourage growth.

Finally, political parties should remember that the relationship of voters to the built environment, although collective in certain respects, is fundamentally individual. What is your home like? Or school? Or railway station, and so on.

The aggregate of our interactions with built form and public space is a guide to what our politicians think of us, even if they try to shed direct responsibility by abusing PFI processes through lack of appropriate design quality standards.  The UK is a relatively rich country and, even in times of ‘austerity’, we don’t need to pretend that we are in the era of the Jarrow March. Retail activity suggests the opposite. It also implies that the standards we expect of our built environment are much greater than they were a couple of generations ago, but the picture is patchy. It can and should improve, in parallel with the amazing world of product design.

Politics apart, 2015 promises plenty of architecture and planning controversy. I look forward to forthcoming English Heritage recommendations on post-1945 listings for commercial buildings.  This is an area where standards have improved out of all recognition in recent years.

From a London point of view, I hope 2015 sees the Museum of London announce that, following constructive negotiations with the City Corporation, it will move into the vacant buildings at West Smithfield, including the under-used Poultry Market (by Arup), creating the world’s greatest city museum. Proactive planning, please!

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