Jon Reeds is a freelance journalist and author of Smart Growth, From Sprawl to Sustainability
SMART GROWTH UK: OUR 2017 BLOG
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The Fourteen Year Itch
There is quite an irony in the decision to call the housing white paper Fixing Our Broken Housing Market. It was with that very objective in mind that HM Treasury, no less than 14 years ago, began its assault on the planning system and the environment that has so damaged our land.
The Treasury's chosen weapon of mass destruction was an economist, Kate Barker, whose review of housing supply concluded that fixing the housing market would involve integrating economic considerations into the planning system. This, she said, required a better means of assessing the costs and benefits of developments, one that acknowledges market signals.
Much grief followed.
There was Ms Barker's subsequent review of the planning system. Then there was New Labour's so-called Sustainable Communities Plan which was unusual in that it wasn't sustainable, wasn't about communities and wasn't even a plan. Then came the Coalition's National Planning Policy Framework which provided a framework for destroying national planning.
And all along the Treasury was driving things, bemoaning house price rises and claiming that building more homes would have a noticeable effect on them. But it only took a moment's reflection, of course, to demonstrate that however many houses you could possibly build, you would make so little a percentage increase in the overall housing stock that it would never have any noticeable effect.
Privately this was admitted, but there were darker forces at work.
Back in 2003, the Treasury had grown strong, far too strong. It had sulked its way through New Labour's early years just as its boss, Gordon Brown, had sulked his way through Tony Blair's early premiership.
Mr Brown believed he was far better qualified to lead the country than Mr Blair. And he had been seduced, as so many politicians across the board were at that time, by neo-liberal economics.
By the early years of the new century, the bickering between the two leaders had begun to threaten Labour's electoral prospects. Deputy prime minister John Prescott decided to effect some kind of truce.
To some extent he succeeded, but the cost was abandoning the very real progress he had made since 1997 in bringing sustainability into both transport and planning policy. His Urban Renaissance and light rail revolution were joys to behold, but they didn't accord at all with what the neo-liberal fanatics at the Treasury had in mind.
So they had to go and planning policy, something else the free-marketeers didn't like, would have to be trashed too. All you would need to do, they reasoned, was point the public's attention at rising house prices and all would be well. The end of history was nigh.
History, of course, has a habit of biting back.
In 2006 Mr Brown claimed boom and bust had been squeezed out of the system.
In 2008 there came an almighty booming noise from the world's economy, house prices crashed overnight and Britain was left with staggering debts it still has yet to find a way out of. All thanks to neo-liberalism.
But neo-liberals are tenacious, in the way that most parasitic pathogens are. So although there are a whole string of problems associated with housing policy, which don't include our planning system incidentally, and housing needs a great deal more attention than fixing the market, that's what's still the focus of political attention.
But the housing market will only be sorted after a great number of other things are sorted.
And currently they're not being.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 24 February 2017
Almost five years ago, the then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg offered a conference three alternative ways of meeting housing shortages.
We could, he said, either condemn ourselves to damaging the countryside by haphazard urban sprawl, we could cram ever more people into cities, concreting over gardens and parks, or we could build garden cities or garden suburbs for the 21st century.
Mr Clegg, of course, forgot to mention a fourth alternative, namely pursuing a Smart Growth approach combining compact, urban development, brownfield where possible, with regional policy to even out population and job growth, sustainable transport options and protection of our countryside and heritage. Oh yes, and a decent helping of social housing too.
But on this simplistic and false basis, governments have committed themselves to a new generation of what they're now calling garden towns and garden villages.
Basically just more garden suburbs. Low-density, car-dependent, greenfield sprawl.
But now the garden village developers have added a new weapon to their armoury. No longer are they only armed with the demonic planning guidance Whitehall imposes, they are also bludgeoning those who defend the environment with a new lethal weapon.
No longer content to issue prospectuses extolling the wonderful architectural purity of their wretched little rabbit hutches and pedestrian-hostile cul-de-sacs, developers have discovered you can batter opponents with the visionary moralistic claptrap of the garden city movement.
Garden city developers, you are required to remember, don't only produce beautiful communities, they connect people to where they live thanks to their wonderful social infrastructure. So if you think the garden suburbs they've spent 100 years covering the UK with are, well, a bit insular, self-satisfied and anti-communitarian, then shame on you.
You deserve moral condemnation. According to them, anyway.
You can find this twaddle up and down the country both in those garden towns and villages approved by DCLG and all those other major greenfield sprawl proposals which have so described themselves.
A particularly gruesome example of this has come across my desk in the form of a Vision which helped persuade Stratford-on-Avon District Council to approve 3,000 houses on Warwickshire farmland around the village of Lighthorne Heath.
Opponents, formerly known as the actual community, were of course ignored.
The Vision contains the usual blarney about the sprawl development meeting the very high moral tone of the garden city pioneers. But amazingly it even then goes on to claim it meets the principles of New Urbanism too.
New Urbanism, it quite rightly says, is based on walkable neighbourhoods which are self-contained and sustainable.
Well, lets look at what the Commercial Estates Group and the Bird Group intend to deposit on this bit of the countryside.
Obviously, being a New Urbanist community, it enjoys access to sustainable public transport, except that it won't. It's several miles from the nearest railway station. It is, however, right next to Junction 12 of the M40, ideal for those who aren't persuaded by the garden city rhetoric about self-containment and who want to drive somewhere else to work.
But there is, of course, a big local employer, right on the edge of the development. That would be Jaguar Land Rover's huge Gaydon site where cars are developed and tested.
So there we have it, the essence of a garden village.
Not a moral force for good at all, just a petrolhead's paradise.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 February 2017
Fixing Our Broken Planning
The clue, of course, is in the name. To call the housing white paper Fixing Our Broken Housing Market presupposes that all that is broken is market housing, when there is an even bigger challenge to be faced in social housing.
But there we are, that is politics for you.
The white paper on housing in England was neither as bad as feared nor as good as it could have been. Those who felt they needed to welcome it have done so, albeit weakly, while the real work now begins on analysing it.
Long ago, well, a few years ago, a Government would have preceded a white paper with a green paper, ostensibly to consult on its proposals. But this is Whitehall, so I suppose it's more honest just to say this is what we intend and what's going to happen, whatever you think.
The white paper promises changes to the National Planning Policy Framework but eschews the root-and-branch reform it so desperately needs. It both defends and doesn't defend the current destructive system of forcing fantasy housing numbers on local planning authorities, blaming the process rather than the principle.
That was sadly predictable and ensures the current destructive flood of unnecessary and unsustainable greenfield development will continue.
Ritual grunts were made about only building on green belts in exceptional circumstances, but with 360,000 homes already approved in English green belts, exceptional is plainly the new normal. And, of course, any defence of green belts is going to push that housing on to the rest of England's battered countryside. That's the vast majority of it, by the way.
One area where progress was looked for was transit-oriented-development. This was something mooted a year ago and which Smart Growth UK submitted proposals for. The white paper does propose amending the NPPF to address the scope for higher density housing in urban areas well served by public transport.
It's hopelessly vague about this, though it hints this could mean a railway station and places where there is scope to replace or build over low-density uses such as retail warehouses, lock-ups and car parks.
Now wait a minute. The densities we're talking about are residential densities, so these uses are zero-density. DCLG has already made clear the type of TOD it is looking at is shoving up blocks of flats around principal stations in cities. There's certainly a case for that sometimes, but the opportunities for TOD, and the drawbacks if you get it wrong, are much, much wider than this and it's time DCLG faced up to the need for detailed planning advice. They should try to remember the Eric Pickles years are over.
There are altogether more welcome proposals, however brief, on densities.
The white paper says the density and form of development should reflect the character, accessibility and infrastructure capacity of an area. That's entirely welcome and overdue.
It also says, however, we should avoid building homes at low-densities where there is a shortage of land to meet identified housing requirements. That does admit that some places don't need large-scale building which is perfectly true, but a big change from current policy.
But one has to ask where it leaves any low-density house building, for so long the default mode of the building industry. Housing built in areas of identified need will be at higher densities. If need is not identified, the requirement to build houses is surely unnecessary.
So presumably then, DCLG will be withdrawing its support for garden towns and garden villages, where low-density is a point of principle and, indeed, all other low-density greenfield sprawl.
Don't hold your breath on that one, however.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 February 2017
One wonders if the authors of the imminent white paper on English housing have read the new Royal Town Planning Institute planning practice note on dementia and town planning.
The Institute argues planning needs to play a much bigger role in creating dementia-friendly communities so those afflicted can live well and independently for longer. This, it notes, would reduce pressure on both the NHS and social care.
The practice note says around 850,000 UK citizens suffer from dementia and that is set to rise to two million by 2051. It sets out best practice and case studies.
The growing number of elderly people is something that ought to be a central concern for planning and housing policy.
I attracted some criticism for suggesting in my 2011 book Smart Growth From Sprawl To Sustainability that creating so-called Grey Ghettoes where older people congregate might be a good thing. If proper provision were made for social care in such areas there could be substantial economies of scale and specialist services would be easier to provide.
This ought to be a key issue in the housing white paper. Far too much political attention is given to the issue politicians call Family Housing and to market housing.
But a swift look at the detail of the household formation projections ought to shift attention rapidly. Politicians read this carefully please.
The latest projections suggest that 74 per cent of projected household growth will be in over-65 year old households. So, three-quarters of the new homes needed are not family homes, they are homes for older people.
My book also got me into trouble for suggesting that a way to create homes for young families and to ensure old folk live in suitable homes was to encourage older people to stop living in their former large family homes and move somewhere more suitable.
I was told off for calling the phenomenon of sitting on a big house in the hope the family might occasionally visit Family Home Blocking.
As a recent empty-nester, I can see the challenge involved in down-sizing even if it's just getting rid of decades of junk. But this is something both politicians and our dismal popular newspapers need to turn their minds to.
Don't hold your breath, however. It's never wise as you get older.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 05 February 2017
A Built Environment Awash With Mediocrity
Architects like to write their signatures across our environment with their buildings. Sometimes this results in great buildings and sometimes in great eyesores. But all too often the result is a mediocrity produced by their clients demanding cheapness and other design professionals imposing limits.
We should ask ourselves whether we should have to put up with the mediocrities and eyesores which have blighted our towns and cities for more than half a century now.
After all, those who commission buildings are not the only consumers of them. We, the public, also have to put up with them, for decades, or maybe centuries. We have rights too.
One way of helping to secure them is through urban design codes. A powerful advocate of them is Congress for the New Urbanism founder Andres Duany who has set out his thoughts in a piece on Why We Code.
Well worth a read.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 January 2017
Sign This Petition
A national petition has been organised to secure a Parliamentary debate on building on greenfield land and in support of the long-overdue community right of appeal against planning approvals.
It also seeks removal of the so-called Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development, included in the 2012 English National Planning Policy Framework to favour unsustainable development.
The petition notes that communities are being forced to accept loss of countryside and agricultural land and development is being forced where infrastructure is either lacking or expensive to provide.
This is long overdue. The long-awaited housing white paper will show if the Government is at all serious about helping brownfield housing development but, meanwhile, it's business as usual in forcing unwanted greenfield development in unsustainable locations on local planning authorities.
I'm glad too that the petition talks about greenfield rather than The Green Belt.
Green belts are certainly under attack, as an assessment published today clearly demonstrates. But they only protect a small proportion of the countryside and although much, much better than no protection at all, much more protection is needed.
Green belts only protect land around most, though not all, major conurbations and they tend to force development beyond their boundaries. And mendacious ministers can simply sign them away when councils are forced to concede development on them and simply designate other land as green belt.
Then they can claim the green belt has actually grown. If you hear a politician claim that, you know he or she is an utter scoundrel.
One garden city enthusiast told the press today that the problem with green belt loss is that the new towns which once accompanied the policy aren't being built any more.
Green belts were certainly a bastard child of the garden city movement, but the original plan for garden cities, or even new towns, to have them was long ago abandoned in the face of the need to prevent conurbations sprawling. Quite how destroying huge areas of countryside to accommodate new settlements would help green belts is a mystery.
New settlements are hugely damaging and, like the new towns even in their heyday, do next to nothing to meet housing need.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 January 2017
The lanky striker Peter Crouch is one of those footballers who divide opinion but, at the age of 36, he is confounding critics by banging in goals for Stoke City.
His rediscovery of form is one of the factors that have propelled the Stoke-on-Trent football club to the top half of the Premiership, but that great city has had little else to cheer about in recent times.
Once the effective capital of the world's ceramic industry, globalization hit it hard as manufacturers deserted it for countries where factories could operate with starvation wages and few environmental controls.
Now its MP, Tristram Hunt, has resigned to become director of the V&A. Whatever the politics of it, it's a great shame in one way as he was one of the few UK Parliamentarians who has had the courage to speak out publicly in support of Smart Growth.
One of Dr Hunt's areas of expertise is Victorian cities, so could we respectfully propose he curate an exhibition at the V&A on them and their influence on the modern Smart Growth movement.
Stoke continues to produce remarkable characters, including current CPRE president Emma Bridgewater, one of the few ceramic manufacturers to maintain production in the Potteries.
Its former Chatterley Whitfield Colliery also provided a case study for our recent report on economic stimulus.
But elsewhere it's the familiar story of industrial decline so familiar across Britain away from the south-east. That long decline, so ignored by politicians, is no doubt one of the factors that led to the political turmoil of the past 12 months.
One aspect of which is the election of Donald Trump as US president. Media attention has focused on his relationship with Russia, his attitudes to Muslims and Mexicans and his weakness for the Tweet button.
His only economic policy that has gained much attention is giving big tax cuts to the very rich, but he is also taking a strong line on globalization.
He opposes trade deals like TPP, TTIP and NAFTA which, oddly enough, have hitherto attracted the strongest opposition from the red and green political corners for undermining social and environmental controls.
How Mr Trump's policy will play out remains to be seen, as will the effects of us leaving the EU. Recently commentators, even those who strongly oppose Brexit, have identified opportunities for greening British agriculture.
One imponderable which has gained less attention is whether it can do anything for British industry. Currently, politicians seem keener on doing new trade deals with those very countries who flood us with cheap imports, based on low social and environmental standards.
But if those left behind in former industrial areas who voted most strongly for Brexit are to secure anything from it, we will need strong regional policies to ensure economic activity and investment flow towards new sustainable industries in those areas.
Whatever else, it's high time to reverse decades of economic movement south-eastwards with strong regional planning policies.
A northern powerhouse that builds economically strong and environmentally sustainable communities, not more motorways.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 15 January 2017
That almost three-quarters of local authority members in England now believe the planning system is too weighted in favour of developers and against communities should surprise no-one who has watched Whitehall butchering the system for more than a decade.
By the time you exclude those members who have no interest in planning, the survey effectively means a very large majority of elected politicians, a large number of them sitting in the blue political corner, now believe reform of England's planning policy is well overdue.
The survey, by the Local Government Information Unit for the National Trust, also found a majority of councils are having to approve housing beyond their local plans, are having to release green belt land and are fed up with the slow infection of the system by permitted development rights.
They also know council planning teams are desperately under-staffed, but then so are most, if not all, council departments.
And in case that isn't bad enough, they're expecting the forthcoming housing white paper to make things worse, especially if it sets the sort of rigid fantasy house building targets so beloved of DCLG.
No doubt ministers will still be claiming green belts are safe in their hands as they slowly vanish.
The case for scrapping England's wretched National Planning Policy Framework grows stronger every year. It was set up to promote greenfield house building and that's what it will continue to achieve, even if the white paper includes fine words about brownfield development
Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 January 2017
Telling Right From Wrong
Some of the hardest people to argue with are those who take a lofty moral tone, even when you know their arguments are specious and the things they advocate would lead to very bad outcomes indeed.
The garden city movement is a case in point. It is probably celebrating the DCLG announcement that three so-called garden towns and 14 so-called garden villages are to be dumped on mostly greenfield sites across England.
Just shove the word garden in front of any bit of crass, low-density, car-dependent greenfield sprawl and Hey Presto. You have a development that we mere mortals are not even allowed to criticise and which will sparkle with a heavy dusting of moral perfection.
They've been at it for more than a century now and they're very good at it.
And it works. Politicians, planners, even some countryside campaigners pale before the Trusty Sword of Garden Sprawl.
This all goes back to Ebenezer Howard, of course, whose garden city book took a very high ethical standpoint.
Howard's legacy is threefold.
Firstly, he must take huge credit for being one of those who founded the modern planning profession, let us not forget that.
But anyone who has struggled through his book will discover the form and layout of his Garden City, in reality a small town, was a secondary concern.
What really grabbed him was the second part of his legacy, an idealized vision of communitarian administration and economy for his new settlements. No doubt the world would have been a better place had it been followed but, for the most part, it wasn't.
The third, utterly malignant, part of his legacy was low-density, greenfield sprawl. Howard certainly believed in plonking his new settlements at unsuitable and inaccessible locations in the countryside.
Today, some argue he didn't support low residential densities but, in reality, he did. But what really dragged the densities of the garden suburbs he inspired down was his belief in covering so much of his settlements in pointless landscaping, pretty to look at but ecologically and domestically pointless.
We need open space, but we don't need endless vast grass verges around the road system.
So, Howard's moral legacy is a mixture of good, indifferent and downright awful. It is a legacy which has given us 100 years of destructive sprawl and left us frighteningly dependent on fossil-fuelled cars.
A small but influential element of the planning profession is still signed up to the Ebenezer Howard Memorial Moralizing Band. Sadly, much of the rest of the profession seems too intimidated to tell them where to go.
Today, the current government has, in effect, resurrected New Labour's so-called Eco-towns programme its members were once so critical of.
But don't be intimidated. There's a new moral force in town.
It's called Smart Growth.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 January 2017
Our Year In Review
Few people, anywhere on the planet, would deny that 2016 was a turbulent year.
Predicting where the newly shaken dice will fall is a pointless exercise while they are still rattling around in the shaker, but the New Year is as good a time as any to look back and see what was, and what was not, achieved in 2016.
Perhaps the first thing any informal coalition should celebrate is its survival for yet another year.
We can only look with envy at bodies with comparatively huge memberships and financial resources. But SGUK has proved, yet again, that a body with no money and whose human resources, organisational and individual, dip in and out, can survive and have a significant impact.
So thanks to all those who contributed and here's hoping we shall see absent friends again in 2017.
Our work this year began with a response to DCLG's consultation on changes to England's National Planning Policy Framework. As we have argued since 2012, this document needs radical reform or even scrapping and starting again and, inevitably, the proposals fell far short of this.
But they did at last reflect the fact the bosses at HM Treasury have finally twigged that maximizing house building means maximizing brownfield house building. And the benefits that accrue from Transit Oriented Development were finally accepted, in principle at least.
We made positive suggestions for building on these proposals and so let's hope DCLG's long cogitation of the issue will result in substantial improvements so the benefits of the Smart Growth approach can at last begin to be realised in England.
We also put in a lengthy and detailed response to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's inquiry into soil health. We put up powerful cases for more public spending on investigation and remediation of land and action to prevent the soil sealing caused by urban sprawl etc. from preventing soil carrying out its many vital roles.
The CIEH took up the contaminated land case at the hearing and Howard Price put up an unanswerable case for more spending. While it's sad the Committee ignored our case on soil sealing they did put out a powerful recommendation on contamination spending. It was a recommendation only a department as enfeebled as DEFRA could have ignored.
CPRE took up our case for Transit Oriented Development with a paper in the summer and we were able to provide substantial input.
In the run-up to the Autumn Statement, many supporters expressed concerns that much of the proposed infrastructural investment would go on things like motorways, airport expansion and greenfield sprawl, things that would be both environmentally damaging and economically disadvantageous.
So, much of the autumn was spent preparing a report, now finalized, with detailed ideas on how the Smart Growth approach could show ways in which public investment could be made which would benefit the environment, the economy and wider society.
All in all, a pretty busy year. 2017 looks like being busier too. The penny has still to drop that Smart Growth isn't some batty idea from the States, but provides an essential framework if we are to fit our huge population into our battered little island, meet our commitments on greenhouse gas reductions and actually have happy, functioning cities, towns and villages and still be able to get about.
It's an approach that works across the political spectrum too.
Writing in his own review of 2016, Smart Growth America CEO Geoff Anderson listed his organisation's many achievements across the year.
You can read on its website what a formally constituted coalition like SGA can achieve with a modicum of resources. However much we achieve as an informal body, many of us still believe SGUK needs to follow that path, but it will take commitment from individuals and organisations to achieve that.
Meanwhile, to the disappointment no doubt of the roads lobby and new greenfield settlement enthusiasts, we're not going to disappear.
As Geoff Anderson says, 2016 was a banner year and 2017 is shaping up to be even bigger.
So, bring it on then.
Posted by Jon Reeds on 01 January 2017