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Will the new government provide town and country vision?

Paul Finch

Whichever party wins, it will need to address the wider built environment, writes Paul Finch

There are already some pointers as to the debates that are on their way. For one thing, following the initiative led by Labour peer Janet Whitaker, there will be a House of Commons select committee on the built environment. Partly a result of discussion generated by the Farrell Review, this committee will occasionally put architecture and planning at the forefront of political discussion in a way that has not happened before.Whatever the flavour of our new political masters, post-election politics is often the occasion for early action on what might be politically difficult in a few years’ time, and more important for the world of design, the setting out of ambitions for the physical world in which we live.

This can only be a good thing, given the uncertainty surrounding the new location of architecture in the Whitehall departmental firmament – that is to say within Communities and Local Government, rather than Culture.

The uncertainty is not about the logic of the relocation, since the idea of design being considered alongside housing, planning and regeneration sounds a sensible one. However, as former government construction tsar Paul Morrell pointed out last week, who can say that quality, as opposed to quantity, will be at the forefront of CLG thinking given the imperatives for growth and house building? Would anybody like to bet on quality emerging as the winner?

Morrell, who was speaking at a pre-election breakfast discussion organised by World Architecture Festival (WAF) London, also posed another awkward question, which he has teased politicians with: ‘Would you be happy to see house prices fall?’  The impeccable logic of the party manifestos, however vaguely put, is that they would massively increase housing production. If that happens, prices should at least stabilise, no doubt to the horror of Daily Mail readers. (Interesting fact: one third of MPs in the last parliament owned buy-to-let properties.)

I wouldn’t want to bet on housebuilding increasing

Will house building really increase? I wouldn’t want to bet too much on it, especially since governments of all persuasions have spent the last 40 years subsidising home ownership one way or another, the latest example being the offer of right-to-buy to housing association tenants.

Simon Jenkins told the breakfast that the failure to build was part of a wider malaise in respect of the whole idea of planning. He related demands to build on green belt, the triumph of minority interest lobbies, and the failure to produce skyline policies as evidence of the loss, or abandonment, of the principles of the 1947  Town and Country Planning Act, which introduced a vision of what and where we should build.

Reviving a vision for the future of the built environment, as opposed to the more functional matter of providing enough homes, has scarcely been discussed during the election campaign. My WAF colleague Jeremy Melvin suggested that there was an overwhelming case for making public realm the bedrock of architecture and planning policy because what we create for everybody is a reflection of what we think about ourselves and our own ambitions and values.

As various contributors pointed out, there was no contradiction between house building and public realm provision, since landscape and amenity areas would be part of the design proposition. Moreover, it would become even more important if, as everyone agreed, we densify and intensify our existing urban areas rather than sprawling into the countryside.

There was also discussion about the £3 billion retrofit of the Palace of Westminster which is coming our way. The relationship of architecture to democracy will be a fascinating discussion. What would Pugin and Barry make of it?


Readers' comments (2)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    What should Government do to assist conurbations to meet the challenge of housing the workers attracted by economic prosperity? Surely the answer has to be to put in place the structures that would enable cities of any reasonable size to organise and meet their own needs. The starting point would be the recognition that the footprint of the cities extend far beyond presently defined boundaries. Brandon Lewis has complained (in a letter to Boris Johnson) that past efforts to plan at this scale “built up nothing but resentment.” Yet planning is meaningless if it is not a democratic means of legitimising (and compensating for) the
    disadvantage suffered by the few in the interests of the many. And allowing the widely acknowledged success of the green belt to become an excuse for inaction is not helpful.
    We fail to challenge the conflation of
    policies to protect the natural environment with
    nimbyism at our peril. The confusion creates a
    taboo which makes it so much harder to develop
    an inspiring vision for how citizens and their rural
    neighbours can share the natural and economic
    wealth that surrounds them. The relationship between city
    and the green belt should not be seen in terms of a polarised debate between city and country dwellers on whether to build homes in the green belt or to prevent this,
    come what may. Instead, there is surely a
    way that we can both protect and enhance the green
    belt as one of the country’s (rare) planning successes,
    at the same time as meeting the wider needs of society, not just for housing, but for biodiversity, leisure, carbon off-set and so on. A true town and country vision, in other words.
    Ben Derbyshire
    Managing Partner, HTA Design
    Chair, The Housing Forum

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  • The first place to start, Ben and Paul, I'd suggest, would be to acknowledge that 'development management' is not 'planning'. Then to recognise that to plan requires appropriate resources, which hardly any local authorities possess, and which politicians resist because it raises difficult questions locally, the answers to which they wish to control. We need to decide if we want 'planning' back, in its original sense, as part of the post-war consensus - as a necessary ameliorating and improving tool of government. I'd only want to see it back if it was more of a joint effort between private and public sectors. It doesn't work if the state or the market does it alone.

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