smart growth uk


Jon Reeds
Jon Reeds is a freelance journalist and author of Smart Growth, From Sprawl to Sustainability


Nigel Pearce
Nigel Pearce is a former civil servant, now grappling with local planning issues as a member of the Eynsham Planning Improvement Campaign EPIC.


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The Body Of Adonis

The sudden resignation of Lord Adonis from the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission must have come as a bit of a shock to those looking forward to profiting from his Axis of Sprawl between Oxford and Cambridge.
In truth, of course, it was concerns Adonis cited about Brexit and the increasingly shambolic East Coast rail franchise which prompted his abrupt departure.
These are important issues, of course, but which have little connection with infrastructure. Yet the noise which accompanied his resignation letter may have obscured the growing concerns over the Commission's work.
The Commission's proposals for a swathe of unsustainable development across the northern Home Counties and south-east Midlands were variously dubbed OMKCam, which sounds a bit like a pile-driver, or CaMKOx, which sounds vaguely rude.
But, let's remember, the Commission's passion for road tunnels under the Thames, airport expansion and its support for the most dysfunctional designs for high-speed rail had already depressed those who advocate sustainable development. True, it did support a few greenish elements but, taken as a whole, it was what nowadays would be called an epic fail.
How much of this came from Andrew Adonis himself, how much from the commissioners and how much was effectively forced on it by Whitehall is something we can only guess at. The commissioners themselves are a mixed bunch, some of whom have inspiring backgrounds, others who appear to have little connection to infrastructure and some who have long urged unsustainable development.
But Adonis' departure is an opportunity to reprogramme the Commission, or even to ask if it really serves any useful purpose. Its plans for an axis of economic development in one of the UK's most prosperous areas, plus a million greenfield homes to support it, plus a new motorway to ensure that would be car-dependent sprawl really belonged in the 1960s.
That was the great era of Growth Areas in south-east strategic planning. They blossomed again briefly under New Labour before the Coalition decided to make the whole of southern England into one vast growth area. All very depressing of course.
But the 2020s are coming closer with our growing regional economic disparities still unaddressed and transport greenhouse gas emissions a major disgrace.
Perhaps what we really need is a National Sustainable Development Commission. And if the Government won't create one, perhaps we should create one ourselves.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 31 December 2017


Planning Is Good For You

I was actually quite shocked, a few years ago, when a planner I liked and respected accused me of not liking planners.
As individuals, of course, planners are much like anyone else, a mixture of the likeable and unlikeable, the adorable and the, well, not-so-adorable. And I most certainly do not dislike, a priori, anyone who has taken the trouble to study and to practise a profession which is so vital to our future sustainable development.
Behind my planner friend's misapprehension, however, I fear lies a greater misconception that anyone who criticises the ideas of the garden city pioneers of planning must therefore hate planners.
This is divisive twaddle. I personally have immense respect, for instance, for those heroes keeping the planning service alive in our criminally under-funded local authority planning departments. And we urgently need to plan collectively for a sustainable future.
But other professions manage to respect their founders without slavishly pursuing the techniques they used. Physicians seldom use leeches these days and mechanical engineers seldom use steam power. Yet they still manage to revere those who did.
In its first 100 years, planning got gripped by two fashions which did immense damage to the environment and the fabric of our towns and countryside. One was the Garden City Movement, the other was the Modern Movement.
It was against the latter that the founding mother of urbanism, Jane Jacobs, launched her crusade with her magnum opus, The Death and Life of Great American cities in 1961.
The tale of her battle with Robert Moses and his like who wanted to reduce US cities to soulless tower blocks interlaced with freeways is well known. Anyone who wants to find out about it should watch the documentary Citizen Jane.
Recently, however, one leading planning commentator claimed that Jacobs didn't like any planners.
Well, she certainly didn't like bad or misguided planning, any more than I do or than anyone else should do. But that doesn't mean she didn't like planning or planners in general.
Jacobs believed that cities, rather than nation states, should be the starting point of economic theory, just as urbanism should be the starting point, but not the whole of, planning theory. As such she was key to the realisation that it is cities, rather than some imaginary rural idyll, that is the key to a sustainable future for a planet with seven billion people.
It was her work, and that of many others, that led to the creation of the Smart Growth approach which should point the way to our future. Jacobs attacked planning at the macro-level which ignored the micro-level and was right to do so. We need both and we need to underpin them with a firm foundation, not simply get bogged down with single issues like the number of market homes we should build, important as that is.
Jacobs argued in The Death and Life that, if great cities can learn to administer, co-ordinate and plan in terms of administrative districts at understandable scale, we may become competent, as a society, to deal with what she called those crazy quilts of government and administration in the great metropolitan areas.
To me, this sounds like someone foreseeing the growth of local plans. Hardly someone who didn't like planners.
Indeed, the sub-title of her book, The Failure of Town Planning is, in its way, surely recognition that planning needs to be done, and done successfully.
As indeed it does.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 December 2017


Garden Cities Of Yesterday

Ebenezer Howard was a remarkable man, still capable of causing controversy nearly 90 years after his death. His ideas still prompt protestations of loyalty which go beyond the obviously reasonable, but sometimes one does wish his defenders would actually read what he said.
Right now many are arguing that it wasn't Howard who prompted the very low residential densities beloved of the garden city movement and which proved, and are still proving, so profitable for house builders.
Tweeting, as President Trump maybe understands, can prompt some very strong responses, partly because the very short word lengths allowed leave very little room to develop arguments.
Earlier, I got involved in a very small war of tweets about Howard's views on density and I said that his book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow, began the shopping mall, relief road and roadside landscaping ideal which drives down garden city type densities.
I was challenged by one respondent who denied there were relief roads or out-of-town malls in the garden city model. Another, for whom I have very great respect as a founder of Smart Growth, liked that response.
Well, to start with, I carefully didn't say out-of-town. But let's look at Chapter 1 of Garden Cities of Tomorrow which contains the basic plans for Howard's Garden City.
The City would have had a circular form with a round park near its centre. Running all around this park, wrote Howard, would be a wide glass arcade called the Crystal Palace. It would be one of the favourite resorts of the people, enticing people from the park in wet weather. Here, he wrote, manufactured goods would be exposed to sale and here most of that class of shopping which requires the joy of deliberation and selection should be done.
Well, circular form apart, that sounds to me pretty much like a shopping mall.
Around the Crystal Palace runs Fifth Avenue, which sounds to me very like an inner relief road. Indeed, the whole town is built round a grid of roads, with six 120 foot wide radial roads and five orbital avenues.
Howard may have been writing at a time when there were hardly any cars, but he certainly foresaw the low-density, car-dependent town.
Oh well, at least no-one bothered to challenge my attack on Howard's desire for pointless roadside landscaping. A great deal of the land squandering by the garden city ideal is the ecologically near-worthless mown grass and non-native trees which surround its roads. 120 feet wide is going some even today, however.
Howard had three big ideas.
He deserves great credit as one of those whose belief that development should be planned by professional planners led to the modern planning system and profession.
The world would probably have been a better place had his second big idea, communitarian economics and governance, been widely adopted. Sadly however, for the most part, this part of his legacy has gained little traction.
But, as I've long argued, it is the third part of his legacy, garden city layouts, that have proved so destructive. Yet even saying so can provoke some very powerful reactions.
It's argued that Garden City's residential plots weren't very big, so densities wouldn't have been all that ruinously low. But, even if that were the case, and many of his followers actually wanted even lower densities, it's the layout of Garden City which makes it so land-hungry.
Howard's book is still regarded as a sacred text, above criticism even in some parts of the planning profession and he certainly deserves our respect. Indeed, part of his legacy deserves support.
But much of his legacy was destructive and, after a century of slavish adherence, the time has come when people really need to start facing up to that.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 19 December 2017


Reports Of The Death Of Dr Beeching Have Been Exaggerated

Headlines about the new national strategic vision for rail concentrated on an alleged Government plan to reverse Beeching, which must have been a relief to ministers given that the document looks like making our dysfunctional franchising system even worse and more expensive to the taxpayer.
Reversing Beeching cuts would be an excellent idea, but the schemes being looked at, and only for what the document called further consideration, were extremely modest and hardly new.
Most of them were the no-brainers gathering dust in the Department for Transport in-tray for many years. Few enough to list, in fact.
There's Oxford-Cambridge, mostly open already, and Bristol to Portishead and Henbury. There's Exeter to Okehampton and Bere Alston to Tavistock, without even the middle part that would have turned it into a vital second route to the west country and Ashington-Blyth-Tyne, a proposal on the table for decades. Those, together with unspecified improvements in the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Northern Powerhouse were about it as far as passenger reopenings went.
Richard Beeching, you can rest easy in your grave. Your wretched legacy is still perfectly safe.
Yet, as transport secretary Chris Grayling notes in his foreword, rail passenger journeys now outnumber those in 1960, before Doctor Death was brought in to practise surgery without anaesthetic on the nation's vital rail network. But there's still no sign of the lines which could facilitate desperately overdue expansion and give us a network fit for the 21st century.
The document is called Connecting People, but there are no signs of plans to connect people in Buxton with those in Matlock for instance. This would open up a much needed route from the East Midlands to the North West. There were many mind-bogglingly stupid closures in Dr Beeching's reports, but closure of this well-used main-line was one of the stupidest.
And there are plenty of other good candidates which could and should figure as urgent priorities for investing the tens of billions Mr Grayling's department intends to waste on road building.
Dozens of imaginative and practical schemes exist for reopening railway lines and many were detailed by the Campaign for Better Transport last spring. The only real limit is total lack of Government support to reconnect people by rail.
Even though the report's rail reopening proposals were modest in the extreme, however, there was still one rather sad footnote. Sustrans, which does excellent work in promoting active travel, issued a predictably grumpy press release complaining that disused railway lines should only be reopened if the cycle tracks constructed along some of them were maintained. Such an insistence would, of course, be pretty much the kiss of death.
Sustrans' stance on this has long been the source of frustration among those who seek rail revival and tends to produce gritted teeth in the rail industry.
One of the reasons Sustrans was established 40 years ago was to preserve disused rail alignments for the day when wiser counsels prevailed. Meanwhile, converting them to temporary cycle and footpaths made sense to preserve them from the building development which has hit so many.
But the cycleways, in time, became ends in themselves. Sustrans says that, every year, five million people use its national cycle network. It says this saves the national economy 550 million pounds by reducing obesity, including 75 million to the NHS.
This may be true, but what's less clear is how much this network contributes to sustainable transport. Many of these routes are inter-urban, and the majority of the cycle journeys made on them are leisure trips. There's nothing wrong in that in itself, but no doubt plenty of them will involve a long drive to the venue with the bike, quite often in a big, gas-guzzling 4x4.
If those cycleways were railways, they could be carrying many tens of millions of passengers making vital journeys and eliminating huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
But the critics needn't worry. There's little sign yet of the Department for Transport rebuilding these routes for sustainable transport.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 07 December 2017


Be Careful What You Wish For

There has been much understandable relief that chancellor Philip Hammond ignored calls from flaky think-tanks for wholesale releases of land in green belts for housing. But his Budget was very far from good news in many other ways.
There were a few good things in it on the brownfield housing front and welcome too was money for replacing the Tyne and Wear Metro stock and some of the things in devolution deals. There is money for remediation and infrastructure on small sites and some very, very cautious moves on increasing housing densities, but only in city centres and around that gloriously imprecise term, transport hubs.
But HM Treasury is still firmly in the hands of the sprawl-and-crawl enthusiasts who favour low-density, car-dependent, greenfield sprawl. That is quite plain from some of the measures.
Sadly, the Government's unwillingness to unleash wholesale destruction on green belts may simply have doomed other greenfield land and some of that may be even less sustainably located.
Big headlines surrounded Mr Hammond's support for Lord Adonis' Oxford-Cambridge Sprawl Belt. Here, money is specifically set aside for road construction to increase congestion in this vast swath of southern England and to facilitate car-dependent housing development.
The Budget Red Book anticipates up to one million homes being dumped in this highly productive agricultural area in the next 30 years, even though it's currently not so much a Brain Belt as a Grain Belt. A heavily indebted country that can't feed itself and that's currently reeling back on free-trade can ill afford to lose so much grain production.
Garden city enthusiasts were, of course, cock-a-hoop that Mr Hammond's speech said five more garden towns would be dumped on the farmland in the Sprawl Belt. Those who want to protect green belts were at least relieved they wouldn't be built in one of them.
Their relief may be premature, however.
Paragraph 5.17 of the Red Book says the five new garden towns will be built in areas of high demand including the South East. It doesn't actually say they will be built in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor. Much of the corridor is actually in East of England rather than the South East and the latter region covers a huge crescent shaped lump of England from Dover to Banbury. There are, too, other areas of high demand, around Bristol for instance.
Paragraph 5.19 of the Red Book confirms this dangerous thinking. This does mention the rather paltry sum Oxfordshire will get for infrastructure if it's willing to destroy a huge area of farmland to accommodate 100,000 homes in just 14 years. But the Red Book warns this will just be the beginning, and anywhere in the South East can expect this kind of thermonuclear attack from HM Treasury.
The danger of focusing too much countryside protection attention on green belts, of course, is that it downgrades and makes more vulnerable the rest of the countryside. And that's a large majority of it.
So, be careful what you wish for.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 24 November 2017


Predict And Arrive

I was recently challenged to produce a plan for building five million homes in over the next 50 years.
My initial reaction was to react like the apocryphal bloke in deepest rural Ireland who, asked by a passing motorist the way to Limerick, replied that if he were going to Limerick, he wouldn't start from here.
That, of course, is wiser than it sounds. If we were properly planning long-term housing policy we certainly wouldn't start with the low-density, car-dependent, greenfield sprawl now being imposed by Whitehall.
Perhaps the biggest challenge would be working out what Britain will look like 50 years hence, though given current uncertainties, I'd hesitate to predict what it will look like 50 months hence, let alone 50 years.
Older readers may like to cast their minds back 50 years, to 1967 and the Summer of Love, to realise just how much the country has changed. Reflect too how the pace of change is accelerating and international uncertainty growing.
Half a century ago, the country made much of its living from manufacturing industry, Britain had been refused membership of the Common Market, the press was bemoaning devaluation of the pound to two dollars forty, North Sea gas was a twinkle in the nationalized Gas Corporation's eye and the oil not even a dream. British Rail still had some steam trains, though even then the transport ministry was trying to ruin the railway system and build motorways. Immigration had slowed dramatically and England's football team held the World Cup.
Over the succeeding half century, we've seen most of our industry destroyed by a failure to invest, Government policy and global competition. We joined and are now leaving Europe, the pound will now buy you little more than half the dollars it did in 1967 and North Sea oil and gas have come, and mostly gone. A promising Urban Renaissance came and went, undermined by the Treasury. Thousands of miles of road construction have created gridlock rather than congestion relief, our urban and inter-urban rail networks remain scandalously underfunded, immigration has hit record levels and the least said about England's football team in international competitions the better.
Oh yes, and long-term population projections have gone up and down like yo-yos. I doubt that anyone could give you a firm prediction about the effects of Brexit on that one, though some might try.
So, a long-term plan then.
To start with we should support the TCPA's call for a national spatial strategy. We can't, of course, support the Association's adherence to garden city principles, but we certainly do need to plan on the grand scale and ignore those economists who say otherwise.
Then we need to get some Smart Growth principles laid down, both for this long-term planning and its day-to-day implementation. A basic list, in no particular order of priority, might look something like the following.
1. Strong regional policies to ensure economic activity is prioritized where it's needed, not simply encouraged in places where there's a temporary boom and a great shortage of housing.
2. Transit-oriented development to ensure major developments only take place where rail-based transit networks are provided. If it has to happen somewhere else, then build the transit first.
3. Policies on compact development and urban form to ensure appropriate residential densities, neither high nor low rise, made permeable to facilitate walking and cycling. If developers don't like good urban design being demanded, well, tough.
4. Brownfield-first and policies to direct development to existing conurbations. And to those who don't think that would yield enough building land for the development levels required, go find out.
5. Where greenfield development does take place, the development should pay for reclamation of an equal area of brownfield land for development or green end-uses.
6. A big push to give all cities comprehensive rail-based public transport systems, to reopen inter-urban and rural railways and to provide public transport in all rural areas. This wouldn't need 50 years, diverting the roads budget could do it in half that time.
7. Policies to protect greenfield land for its ecosystem services and heritage for its contribution to communities.
8. A national infrastructure commission that promotes appropriate infrastructure, rather than sprawl-and-crawl.
Not an exhaustive list, but a promising start and one which could certainly deliver the consistent 100,000 homes annually for 50 years, implicit in the challenge.
But, of course, it would produce few of them in the overheated Oxford-Cambridge corridor which is currently obsessing some people.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 20 November 2017


Affordability And Need

One of the big arguments put forward for the huge greenfield housing developments now being imposed by central government is that they would deliver so many homes they would lower house prices, and maybe even rents.
The latest addition to this canon comes from the Royal Town Planning Institute which has a fine knack for wrapping an interesting report in a dull title.
But The Deliverability and Affordability of Housing in the South West of England, RTPI Research Report No. 16 is anything but dull, assuming controversy is an antidote to dullness.
The report examines six major housing developments in South West England, mostly but not all greenfield, and their effect on that sinisterly imprecise term, affordability.
This matters as the Institute launched it with the bold claim that it shows that developments involving thousands of homes, which it describes as similar to those envisaged in the Government's garden villages, are necessary to bring about housing affordability. But only with good planning of course.
Well, we can certainly echo the RTPI's call for good planning. All developments, large and small, should be properly planned.
But it's the affordability claim that conceals the real land mines in the report.
The report's Chapter 5 argues, reasonably enough, that market housing has become less affordable in the South West. But then it swims off into some murky waters which spring from the long-discredited Barker reviews of the early 2000s and the subsequent Treasury-imposed campaign to push greenfield development at the expense of brownfield.
In paragraph 5.2, the RTPI report says it has related the build rate of the six developments to total completions in their housing market areas to assess the impact of the scheme on the supply side in its relevant HMA.
The report goes on to compare the price of new-build sales at the sites' locations with all sales in their HMAs and concludes the price of new build houses on large sites is actually slightly above prices across the HMA, although the gap is narrowing and is influenced by the mix of housing types and sizes.
It says relating build rate to total numbers of completions in the HMAs yields a measure of the scale of impact of the scheme on the supply side in its HMA.
Most of the six schemes, it says, would have a relatively modest impact on new-build supply in their HMA, apart from Monkton Heathfield where completions in Mid-West-Somerset would increase by 55 percent by 2021. More typical is the 16 percent by Sherford in the Plymouth HMA.
But these are just increases in completions, of course, not increases in overall stock, although the report says it does not regard new-build as a separate market from existing home sales.
It employs a complex methodology using the Sub-Regional Housing Market Model to judge the six schemes' effect on affordability, comparing a scenario without the developments with one that has them. It claims to include resultant changes in terms of internal migration, household formation, house prices and rents and looks at five and 15 years hence.
The results are provided for the relevant HMAs and for the South West Region as a whole and, at first sight, look vaguely impressive. Affordability for buyers improves 12.9 percent in Mid-West-Somerset in 2021 and 21.4 percent in 2031 thanks to Monkton Heathfield. In the other five developments the 2021 range is between 1.3 and 5.1 percent and the 2031 2.0 to 8.6 percent. For the region as a whole, the estimates are 2.2 and 3.7 percent.
The huge developments are predicted to have less effect on rental affordability, ranging from 0.4 to 2.7 percent in 2021 and 0.1 to 6.8 percent in 2031, with the regional figures 0.6 and 0.8 percent respectively.
But before saying hurrah, bring on the bulldozers and stuff the ecosystem services of the land they destroy, we need to look at what's meant by affordability here. It is, apparently, the ability of young, under-40, households to buy on current mortgage availability and the ability of those same households to afford market rents.
We can ignore the later paragraphs estimating benefits to social or affordable housing, especially given the elastic definition of affordable. Recent work has shown just how good builders are at avoiding those obligations by using viability criteria. They won't let that go without a fight.
No, we need to look at the way affordability is used here. The SRHMM model was developed by the unloved National Housing and Planning Advice Unit, created by New Labour to justify the big increases in land release demanded by the Treasury and its chosen weapon of mass destruction, Dame Kate Barker. It was wound up in 2010 following a great deal of criticism and was essentially set up to justify housing land releases as its main objective.
The model aims to generate long-term measures of affordability, taking into account the spatial relations between adjoining areas, housing supply, incomes, employment etc.. And it generates satisfyingly high predictions of the benefits of building lots of greenfield homes, though it takes no account of things like availability of sustainable transport, ecosystem services or the actual profile of household formation.
This last is particularly important as the research estimated affordability for under-40s households. Current projections, however, say that 74 percent of new households expected to form will be over-65s. It is, therefore, aimed at the alleged needs of that small minority of households that politicians are most keen to woo, rather than those who will actually need homes.
Together, the six developments will create some 23,150 homes over the next 10-23 years. That's somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 a year, assuming of course their developers don't suddenly find it more profitable to leave them as vacant consented sites, as so often happens.
But it's impossible to seriously entertain the view that building such a number of houses would have any serious effect on house prices. The report estimates that local prices, quite different from its estimates of affordability, would fall between 1.1 and 8.3 percent in 2021 and 2.3 and 15.3 percent in 2031. The regional figures would be 1.7 and 3.1 percent respectively.
The very high figures refer to Monkton Heathfield, the vast proposed sprawl development on farmland beside the M5 north-east of Taunton, justified by the local authority as necessary for employment-led growth. Quite why a prosperous area like Taunton Deane needs massive employment growth, then tens of thousands of greenfield homes to accommodate the new employees, is a matter for another blog. But the other developments in the RTPI report are at the bottom of the range.
No-one can surely imagine that a change of less than 2 percent over the next five years would have any visibility in the general noise of the national economy and house prices. Only today, Halifax has reported that UK house prices have risen 4.5 percent in just three months, following a similarly rapid fall. Volatility is set to increase.
Critics of Brexit think it will damage the economy, supporters think it will enhance it. Smart Growth UK doesn't have a view, but it will certainly have a major effect and one percent or so changes would vanish into the storm. The same applies even more strongly to slightly higher figures over 15 turbulent years. Sorry.
And even if housing in, say, the Taunton area did suddenly get much more attractively priced, it's beside a motorway. People working elsewhere would simply move there and commute by road further, emitting more greenhouse gases. Any benefit would blow away like old planning reports in a gale.
Given that this whole concept of affordability, fundamentally flawed as it is, retains such importance in Whitehall's fumbling attempts to reform the NPPF, this matters. One would hope the RTPI, with its long and honourable tradition of professional integrity, would stand above it.
It's very difficult to find figures for English regional housing stock these days given the demented Whitehall attack on the whole concept of regions, but South West England appears to have around three million dwellings. It is surely inconceivable that adding 23,000 extra market homes to that over more than 20 years would have any discernible effect on prices, rents or affordability, other than a very local and very temporary one.
What's perhaps most disturbing is that, while the report simply quotes the numbers and very properly says it wouldn't matter where the homes were built, the Institute's news release wades in, claiming it's a full-bloodied justification for large-scale developments.
The release even goes so far as to claim it shows the Government's garden villages, not mentioned in the report, can improve housing affordability. This stretches things far beyond any professional credibility and sadly it looks as if the garden city people retain their influence down Botolph Lane.
In the outside world, some very real housing need is growing apace. Shelter today reports that one in 25 people is homeless in some parts of England. Housing them will require the social house building, normally on brownfield sites within conurbations, that HM Treasury has so successfully killed off in recent years. Happily this penny is dropping across the political spectrum.
As to how we should plan housing, we should of course be thinking about transit-oriented-development at appropriate densities and trying to ensure employment growth happens where the people are, rather than housing growth where expansionist local authorities and house builders desire.
That would be a professional approach.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 08 November 2017


A Guide To The Greed Belt

A guide to green belts to address common misunderstandings is long overdue, but an organisation set up with the specific purpose of building more houses is not the body to provide it. In fact it is pretty much the worst possible author of such a publication.
So I approached the Housing and Finance Institute's Quick Guide to the Green Belt with a sense of dread and even a quick glance revealed just how profoundly misplaced this publication is. Indeed, even just reading the comment piece by HFI chief executive Natalie Elphicke in Inside Housing magazine, a paper I worked for long ago, was enough to send me reaching for my keyboard.
Ms Elphicke begins by rightly noting that the green belt is an emotional and highly technical topic. And, as she also says, the subject matter can be easily misunderstood or misrepresented.
So, in the spirit of better understanding of this complex topic, let's take a look at what she says and perhaps ourselves address some common myths or misunderstandings that are commonly used by those who want to make money out of destroying areas of green belt.
I'm unclear who the people are who Ms Elphicke says believe The Green Belt exists principally around London. Perhaps she should tell that to those fighting vigorous campaigns to protect green belts around Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Merseyside, Durham, Tyneside, the West Midlands etc., indeed around any of England's 14 green belts, Scotland's 10, Northern Ireland's 30 or Wales' between Cardiff and Newport.
As she says, only two of the top 10 green belts adjoin the Home Counties.
Yes, madam, we know.
But when it comes to peddling misunderstandings, Ms Elphicke wades in with a few of her own.
This becomes very clear when she claims that people fail to understand the country's green belt hasn't diminished in recent decades.
As she says, green belts more than doubled in area between 1979 and 1997. Quite why the time period the Institute chooses should be a period of control of the Commons by one particular party is unclear, but the reason green belt designation grew in those two decades was that several cities decided to designate one.
But Ms Elphicke's bulldozer blunders on, claiming that the two decades since 1997 have seen little change in the extent of green belt designation.
And here, although the statement is true, the whole tottering house of cards comes tumbling down.
There is certainly a massive public misunderstanding about green belts, but it's one that house builders have been keen to support and sustain. The clue lies in that definite article when people talk about The Green Belt.
The sad truth is that a large proportion of the public believes that all undeveloped countryside is part of something called The Green Belt. And so, if the area of green belt has stayed the same, then there hasn't been any urban sprawl.
But, of course, little more than 10 percent of England is actually designated green belt and much of the rest is there for grabs.
So the pressure has been on from Whitehall for councils to release areas of green belt land for development, then designate other areas surrounding their green belt and sit back and claim their green belt has not shrunk and may even have grown.
People see the low-density sprawl growing around their towns and wonder how this could be. But THEY say it, so presumably it's true.
Ms Elphicke is very keen to build on this, metaphorically and literally. She says over 80 percent of green belt released in the past year was in the West Midlands, so that's presumably all right. We should obviously conclude no-one cares about countryside in Bromsgrove or Stratford-upon-Avon. It only counts as valuable countryside if it's in the South East.
And here Ms Elphicke thinks she has a killer argument. The only area to release green belt near London in the past year was Hertsmere, which lost a mere 7.5 percent.
Even if we accept Hertfordshire countryside doesn't matter, this is dangerous ground. Green belt de-designation goes in tranches. The pressure is seriously on all around the capital and has intensified since 2012.
As CPRE research showed, by 2015 some 219,000 houses and 1,205 hectares of commercial development were proposed on Englands green belts, nearly three times the number three years earlier. The number proposed in London's metropolitan green belt had tripled in two years to 86,000.
But, of course, you can build homes in green belts without de-designating them. And a one-year snapshot is meaningless. The huge green belt releases local authorities in the South East are staring at are imposed via the Government-controlled local planning process and so the flow of green belt de-designation will flow seamlessly for the next 15 years.
Most ludicrous of all Ms Elphicke's arguments, however, is that we needn't worry because, given that green belts' purpose is preventing urban sprawl, there are other such protections.
I cannot believe anyone who knows anything about this could believe that metropolitan open land, strategic and local gaps in local plans, AONBs, SSSIs and national parks will do anything significant to prevent the tsunami of sprawl current policies are generating in much of the country. So it's very disappointing someone in a position of trust would even bother trotting such arguments out.
The HFI was set up two years ago basically to promote house building and claims to have the support of central and local government, while its website describes Ms Elphicke as probably the best lawyer in the City on housing.
Of course, advocacy is a key skill for any lawyer and she presents a strong case for ignoring what's going on in our green belts.
But we aren't going to ignore it, and the only people likely to be convinced by this stuff are those with a vested interest in building houses in green belts.
The HFI admits its sole purpose is to boost the capacity and delivery of housing and its guide began by asking whether The Green Belt is forever if it no longer serves its purpose.
But housing doesn't exist in a vacuum. It exists in a complex web of needs and constraints and securing the housing we need will involve addressing all of them.
So perhaps what we ought to be asking is whether the Housing and Finance Institute is forever if it fails to serve a useful purpose.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 29 October 2017


Winners, Losers And Litigants

Last week I wondered in this blog if the Government proposals for assessing what it chose to call housing need would provoke endless legal challenges.
I was challenged myself, though mercifully not in the courts, by someone who pointed out there would be no danger of this as the consultation paper proposes transitional arrangements for its new methodology.
Resisting the urge to make a snarky comment about the Government's current difficulties over transitional arrangements in another policy area, let's take a look at the transitional arrangements proposed in paragraphs 52-55 of the consultation paper.
The proposals, set out in the paper's Table 1, propose four categories of local authority, depending on the state of play with its current and emerging local plan.
Dangerously, from a legal standpoint, it proposes using the existing NPPF methodology for assessing so-called need for two of the categories and using the new methodology for the other two.
So then, councils with no plan or a plan adopted before the NPPF was imposed five years ago and whose new plan is yet to be published would use the new methodology proposed in the consultation.
Such councils which have, however, published a plan but not yet submitted it for examination and are unlikely to submit it before April Fools' Day next year, or before DCLG eventually gets round to approving its new NPPF, will continue to use the current discredited NPPF methodology. If they are likely to submit after those events then they should use the new methodology, but only if it is ever approved, of course.
If the council's plan is already at examination stage, or likely to be by All Fools' Day, they should use the current approach.
And if they have adopted a plan in the past five years, they should use the new methodology only when updating it.
I hope that's clear.
Don't worry if it isn't, the key thing is that local planning authorities would then fall into two quite different camps, those whose current local plan uses the NPPF methodology and those whose plan uses the new, quite different, methodology.
This matters as it determines the house building target that the Government imposes on each local authority. And those targets are likely, in the case of quite a large number of authorities, to be very different in the two cases.
The new methodology proposes some very big changes. There are big winners like Blackburn, down from 530 to 153, Cherwell 1,142 to 762, Cheshire East 1,800 to 1,142, Cheshire West 1,100 to 680, Copeland 230 to 32, Darlington 446 to 177, Hertsemere 599 to 372, Richmondshire 180 to 14, Torbay 1,049 to 588, Watford 577 to 364 and Vale of White Horse 1,028 to 689. Barrow-in-Furness, currently required to accommodate up to 133 new homes annually, would see its target reduced to zero.
And there are big losers too like Aylesbury Vale up from 965 to 1,499, Bristol 1,450 to 2,420, Central Beds 1,600 to 2,553, Chorley 417 to 634, East Herts 745 to 1,111, Epping Forest 514 to 923, Horsham 650 to 974 and Medway 730 to 1,665.
The new formula proposes massive increases too in many London boroughs with Greenwich worst hit with its annual target raised from 350 to 3,317. Quite where it's expected to accommodate 33,000 new homes in the next decade is unclear. Yet while most London boroughs are seeing eye-watering increases, Hillingdon's target drops from 3,081 to just 595.
All right, it's crazy, but no crazier than the original NPPF. The point at issue is whether imposition of the new formula would open up legal challenges.
Let's look at a couple of the possible situations which may prompt calls to m'learned friends. Suppose Council A has an existing up-to-date local plan and is struggling to meet its existing huge and unreasonable NPPF-based target. The local plan target is hopelessly unsustainable given the fact the area includes green belts and productive farmland, its existing infrastructure is already groaning under weight of recent housing development and its roads are jammed with congestion that plans for new roads will simply exacerbate. There is massive local opposition and it is only fortunate that its council members are not the sort who dream of turning their once green-and-pleasant land into a vast metropolis of sprawl, commerce and happy voters.
Now it looks next-door at Council B which is still struggling to update an elderly local plan as expenditure cuts have left it unable to provide a full planning service. Yet, for mysterious reasons due to the supposed affluence of its voters, it now has a massive drop in its target as a result of the new methodology.
There are, however, some affluent voters in Council A's area who are responsible enough to want to protect their local environment from unsustainable low-density sprawl. They look at the drop in Council A's target which the new formula would have produced had it applied, compare it with the good fortune of Council B, and become enraged by the grotesquely inflated NPPF-target they will still be forced to endure for the life of their current local plan, at least five years.
They begin searching for lawyers with planning expertise. Maybe Council A will join its suit as an interested party.
Council C is another apparent winner but winning is seldom allowed when you're a modern local planning authority. It is, theoretically, in the happy position of being able to adapt its draft plan and it won't be fit for examination by All Fools' Day. So, when it goes to examination late next year, it will include a big decrease in building numbers as it would be able to use the new methodology, a lottery which has come up trumps for it.
But Council C's previous, NPPF-determined target that it was working towards offered the volume house builders some massive greenfield releases in attractive countryside and they had spent a lot of money planning the low-density developments that could have yielded them substantial profits there. And they're wondering why they should lose so much when their competitors in other nearby areas are seeing targets increased or still enjoying big NPPF-imposed releases.
Let's hope they don't phone the same lawyers' office.
Already, I suspect, the magic words natural justice and unreasonableness are being muttered in some legal practices.
Wednesbury is a town within the borough of Sandwell, one of those areas whose housing target would actually be little changed by the new formula. But Wednesbury unreasonableness is the standard under which many a public authority or government has found itself in the High Court.
So I don't think we've heard the last of Wednesbury in the context of housing need.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 October 2017


Congestion, Capacity, Carbon, Confusion

Congestion, Capacity, Carbon are the priorities for national infrastructure. Or so the new National Infrastructure Commission report says. I think one could add another issue that needs to be addressed.
The Consultation on a National Infrastructure Assessment launched by the National Infrastructure Commission is an important document and has some good ideas.
And, sadly, some bad ideas.
In his Foreword, Lord Adonis makes some good points including that much more needs to be done to meet climate change targets and that house building is the greatest infrastructure capacity challenge of all. Then he undermines it by demanding Heathrow be expanded, thus blowing apart the whole carbon strategy he claims to embrace.
Such confusion rots its way through the whole report. On the plus side it calls for action on city-region congestion and he calls for using city road space for buses and trams. So far so good.
But there's an ugly tumour at the heart of the reports thinking on transport. It predicts that road transport, pretty static for the past decade, will start growing again rapidly and expand 37 to 61 per cent by 2050. It does call for more road pricing and taxation, but a whole chapter is based on the myth that an 80 per cent carbon reduction could be achieved by electric vehicles.
The report makes the welcome point that our housing construction fails to take advantage of existing infrastructure and it puts a pathetically inadequate toe-in-the-water on densification by saying densities in high-demand areas around infrastructure hubs could help meet need. But it then even undermines that by saying this could happen in green belts too.
The Commission has already noted that its plan for a high level of sprawl in the Oxford-MK-Cambridge Corridor is constrained by lack of electrical infrastructure but it's still pressing for a quango to drive the car-dependent greenfield mess it wants to promote there.
There are welcome proposals on digital infrastructure, but nowhere is there much sign that we urgently need to support a move of business activity to those regions that need it, and the infrastructure such a shift would require. Yet that would offer huge benefits in infrastructure provision by using under-used infrastructure and housing in those regions.
Frankly, Milton Keynes has squandered quite enough farmland and sucked up enough brand-new infrastructure in the past 50 years. We need to start thinking of ways to use the best of what we have elsewhere.
What gets little mention anywhere is the most basic aspect of our national infrastructure, namely the ecosystem services our land provides, apart from the need for big investment in water and flood control. But theres no recognition we need to protect the very land itself that provides these things and many others, food for instance.
Perhaps it's time we scrapped the NIC and had a National Ecosystem Services Commission instead.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 13 October 2017


Bring On The Lawyers

Lawyer-led planning is probably not something anyone would want. But that could be the way we are heading.
As our report this year demonstrated, Garden Towns and Garden Villages are neither towns nor villages. They tend to be low-density, car-dependent suburbs, unwanted by anyone except their developers and the wonks at the Treasury.
Millions of pounds are being wasted on these developments but nowhere is this harder to understand than those threatening the north of England. Two of these, St Cuthberts outside Carlisle and Bailrigg outside Lancaster, even made it on to the Government-supported list.
But volume house builders know a PR opportunity when they see one and all sorts of blobs of sprawl are now being dubbed a Garden Village.
The latest to spark major controversy is Theakston Estates' plan for 4,500 houses on farmland north of Darlington. And surprise, surprise, Darlington Council says the site has also been identified as a potential strategic east-west route for a new road between the A1 and A66.
As ever, there you have it. Car-dependent sprawl.
Quite how something called Skerningham North East Extension should represent a Garden Village is more of a mystery. Suburbs are not villages.
Sadly, however, the Council has been going along with this destructive bit of unsustainable development with a masterplanning exercise in conjunction, of course, with the Homes and Communities Agency's ATLAS organisation, the Advisory Team for Large Applications.
What's even odder about this is that Darlington's current Government-imposed housing target is just 446 homes per annum, so the Garden Village would represent more than 10 years supply on its own, on top of many other developments around a town whose housing market is not exactly buoyant.
Odder still is that the revised draft target proposed last month is just 177 homes per annum, so 4,500 homes would represent more than 25 years' supply single-handedly.
Opposition is fierce and being treated with the level of contempt familiar from other such developments. Yet it's almost impossible to see justification of any kind for these big developments in the far north of England where demand for housing is so weak.
But still they go forward, like the wretched 2,000 home Dissington Garden Village on green belt near Ponteland or indeed the Government-backed St Cuthberts scheme outside Carlisle.
With wearisome predictability, Carlisle City Council is now discussing a new link road between the M6 and A595. Some 370,000 pounds are being wasted on a feasibility study for the road which the Council says would be vital for the Garden Village.
Like I said, car-dependent sprawl as usual.
Yet Carlisle is yet another northern town whose imposed annual housing target Whitehall is proposing to reduce, in its case from 565 to 211.
And that raises an interesting thought about the Government's proposals on what it calls housing need. Just as the 2012 NPPF rendered all existing local plans out-of-date, the new figures must surely undermine all local plans produced since then.
One wonders whether anyone still fancies justifying an inflated and out-of-date housing target at examination-in-public, let alone judicial review.
Bring on the lawyers, I'm afraid.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 11 October 2017


Greenfield Sites Have High Environmental Value Too

Over the years Wildlife and Countryside Link has provided a great way of joining environmental voices together and also mediating in those cases where countryside and wildlife protection come into conflict. So it can only be a matter of great regret that it has, once again, decided to take sides in the debate over whether to sterilize brownfield land from development.
Link is currently making a lot of noise about its latest set of guidelines which, it says, aim to reduce the number of inappropriate developments on brownfield sites.
There is, unfortunately, a lot of history to this and the guidelines reflect just one side of a serious environmental debate.
Four years ago the State of Nature Partnership, a coalition of most of the UK's wildlife organisations, published its first State of Nature report. It was a fine piece of work which highlighted the shocking decline in wildlife and wildlife habitats in this country.
But it had one great drawback. Invertebrate charity Buglife had persuaded it to include a chapter it had largely drafted itself attacking the concept of brownfield reclamation. This, the report argued, was damaging some sites of high biodiversity value, some of which supported some very rare invertebrate species.
No doubt this was true in a handful of cases which were given huge prominence. Wildlife doesn't arrive overnight and the fact that some derelict sites had been derelict for so long they'd begun to support a few plant and invertebrate species, was testament to the shocking failure to reclaim and regenerate derelict land.
The threat this idea posed to urban regeneration and to those communities seriously blighted economically and environmentally by derelict and contaminated land quickly became obvious to brownfield organisations. They wrote to the Partnership setting out their support for its report, apart from the brownfield chapter.
The letter set out their belief that brownfield-first policies are beneficial to wildlife, that the shift to greenfield development is doing great harm to wildlife and that there are wider sustainability concerns.
The State of Nature Partnership initially rejected the approach but the brownfield bodies sought a meeting which eventually took place. Despite the obvious fundamental disagreements, it proved surprisingly constructive and a range of ways forward was tentatively discussed.
Both sides at the meeting agreed that the obvious umbrella body to take discussions forward would be Wildlife and Countryside Link, given that one of the main reasons it was created was to reconcile issues where protection of countryside and wildlife come into conflict.
Link was approached and agreed to do this, but the further discussions never took place. Despite the brownfield bodies spending weeks trying to set up further meetings under Link's auspices, they were rebuffed. Instead, Link effectively took the side of the handful of wildlife bodies that supported big restrictions on brownfield and began work on a set of guidelines which claimed to define high environmental value on brownfield sites to restrict it.
The inevitable row that followed, albeit behind closed doors, merely delayed publication of these guidelines but, in the end, Link decided to stay on one side of the debate and ignore counter-arguments.
Now it has produced a second set of guidelines to try to limit the number of sites included on the new brownfield registers. And significantly it says land should be excluded from registers, inter alia, if it contains priority habitats under S41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.
This sounds innocuous until you realise that two specifically brownfield habitats had been added to the list of priority habitats in 2007 after a long history of lobbying by Buglife.
One of these was calaminarian grassland which is, typically, the vegetation-poor spoil tips from metal mining. Remediation of some of these sites is currently being deterred by this designation, even though some are causing acute pollution of river water.
The other was called open mosaic habitat on previously developed land. Its definition is actually a very wide one, albeit imprecise, and it can be used to sterilize development of potentially large numbers of brownfield sites.
Natural England, which is supposed to protect England's environment, was lured into the mess, with a publicly funded inventory of open mosaic habitat.
This matters. The Government has finally admitted that, if you want to maximize the number of homes built, you have to maximize the number of brownfield homes built. This is tacit acknowledgement of the huge damage done by the abandonment of brownfield-first in 2012 and the powerful support to greenfield sprawl offered by its NPPF.
But, so far, measures to help brownfield have proved weak and fall far short of what's needed, namely restoration of brownfield-first.
One of the few measures the Government has proposed is brownfield registers. And now here is a lobbying body, and not one with a vested interest in greenfield development for once, working hard to restrict brownfield development.
It matters too because there is a fundamental myth in the campaign waged by this handful of wildlife bodies against brownfield development. This is that most greenfield sites are environmentally worthless because they are intensively worked farmland.
There are undoubtedly big environmental shortcomings to intensive agriculture but, even so, such greenfield land contributes a huge range of ecosystem services like food and water production, flood control, groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration and the intangible but real psychological benefits that open countryside confers. It also, actually, supports a lot of wildlife, just not as much as other parts of the countryside.
The current flood of unsustainable car-dependent greenfield sprawl is no respecter of high environmental value on greenfield sites and every bit of brownfield land pointlessly left to dereliction, contamination, anti-social behaviour and invasive species means a greater area of greenfield land will be destroyed.
Brownfield land offers very limited space for valuable wildlife and usually only accommodates any until invasive vegetation moves in, but its usefulness for ecosystem services is near non-existent. Significant restrictions on brownfield development are environmentally disastrous.
It's a shame the intensity of this campaign against brownfield development should have been conducted so publicly and should have got an important and valued organisation, one of whose jobs is to reconcile wildlife and countryside challenges, involved.
But perhaps it's significant that only 11 of Link's 46 member bodies have signed up to the new guidelines. There has been unease right from the start.
Nevertheless, four years of near public silence by those who disagree is probably enough. There are two sides to this debate.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 18 September 2017


Fixing Our Brokered Housing Market

The grandly named new Government policy for Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places raises far more questions than answers, but the big one ministers will be asking is whether it will head off hostility from the rank-and-file at the upcoming party conference.
Certainly the new methodology has produced some radically different house building targets for DCLG to impose on English local authorities. Yet the Government is no nearer addressing actual housing need than it ever was.
The old system was claimed to be based on Objectively Assessed Need but, in reality, just generated Subjectively Guessed Market Housing Demand. The new system is different, but little improved.
Any system which claims to assess housing need and which ignores local housing waiting lists is plainly not fit for purpose.
That obviously doesn't much worry ministers. What might, however, is whether the figures for the number of new homes each English local planning authority will be obliged to grant planning consent for each year will buy off increasingly vocal opposition. The answer, I suspect, is yes, but only in a very few cases.
The new methodology has certainly changed the figures, in some cases substantially, a tacit admission the system imposed five years ago by the National Planning Policy Fiasco really was unfit for purpose.
Leaks in sympathetic newspapers in recent weeks suggested the new system would fearlessly impose even more staggering levels of building in the constituencies of ministers, even the Prime Minister's Maidenhead constituency.
Well, Windsor and Maidenhead's allocation has gone up, from 712 to 778, but it's hardly dramatic.
The new system, which matches local incomes to house prices, inevitably reduces some of the absurd targets imposed on northern and midland councils where housing is plentiful and which need jobs, not bricks and mortar. Even the two councils in Cheshire, ambitious for housing growth to draw life out of the cities to their north, get big reductions.
What may be more significant, however, is that some relatively rural councils in southern England where opposition is fierce and pressure for building intense, will actually see their Government-imposed targets reduced.
Oxfordshire and west Berkshire have done pretty well. While many cities' targets have risen sharply, Oxford's is down from the current 1,200-1,600 to 746, Vale of White Horse from 1,028 to 689, West Berks from 665 to 545, South Oxfordshire from 725-825 to 617 and West Oxfordshire from 685 to 605.
Other substantial reductions include Cambridge, from 700 to 583, Shepway 633 to 490, Southampton 1,115 to 942, Watford 577 to 364, Hart 382 to 292, East Devon 981 to 844 and Shropshire 2,518 to 1,270.
On the other hand there have also been some steep rises in places which may still prove politically uncomfortable for Mr Javid. Essex and north-east Hertforshire come off badly, with Basildon up from 972 to 1,024, Braintree from 716 to 835, Broxbourne 454 to 559, Chelmsford 805 to 980, Colchester 920 to 1,095, Harlow 268 to 466 and North Herts 690 to 996.
Other eye-watering increases include St Albans 639 to 913, Stroud 448 to 635, Tandridge 470 to 625, Central Beds 1,600 to 2,553, Tendring 550 to 749, Thanet 857 to 1,063, Worthing 636 to 865 and Wycombe 641 to 792. As a strategy to get people off ministerial backs, it's a non-starter.
Driving the plan is the aim of delivering 266,000 homes annually in England, a figure that seems to have been plucked out of thin air and bearing no relation to the industry's desire to build homes. But it would make land speculators even richer.
To deliver these vast numbers, the big increases dictated by the new system come in some big cities, especially London. We are obviously on another planet when Greenwich's target goes up from 350 to 3,317, Bristol's from 1,450 to 2,420, Southwark 1,472 to 3,089 and Wandsworth 738-1,238 to 2,414.
Croydon, bizarrely, falls from 2,440 to 1,414.
Anyone expecting a brownfield bonanza, however, will be disappointed. Big rises in some southern cities are matched by big falls in some northern.
The new system is supposed to be clear and transparent and to make every community understand the scale of the housing challenge they face.
It won't do that of course. At best it could make some a little more aware of the need to build more homes for house purchasers, as a way of attracting young voters.
Its basis is assessments of baseline household growth projections for each council. That headline figure is pretty meaningless, as what's needed is some kind of breakdown of which sectors actually need more homes, such as the elderly, single people, those in need of social housing etc.. But there ins't one.
An arbitrary one percent figure is then added to achieve the Government's 266,000 figure.
Then there's an adjustment for what are laughably called market signals. Based as it is on the ratio between local house prices and earnings, it doesn't even take into account the affordability of privately rented property, let alone the need for social housing. And even as a measure of demand for homes for sale, it really doesn't work.
Its definition of local housing need depends on a complex formula comparing median house prices to median earnings and then calculating a local target to impose on local planning authorities. This could produce some pretty perverse results.
Let's imagine a place called Lalaland and the target to be imposed on Lalaland District Council.
Lalaland is dominated by one big employer, as many districts still are. Let's suppose then that the big employer decides to dramatically downsize or close. It does happen, ask them in Redcar.
The closure has an immediate and massive impact on local incomes as people lose their jobs. But the impact on local house prices is slower. Many of the employees lived in rented property anyway and anyone selling a house is always reluctant to reduce the asking price, fondly remembering what their house used to be worth.
So Lalaland's ratio has changed for the worse. Earnings have fallen much faster than house prices and, according to DCLG, affordability has worsened. The Department would then have to impose a much bigger house building target, even though people are leaving the area and demand for market homes has fallen off a cliff.
That's one big drawback but, underlying both the old system and the new and indeed all Treasury-imposed housing policies of the past 15 years since the Barker reviews, is the assumption that building more homes will bring down house prices.
The well-known planning commentator Andrew Lainton argues there is much evidence to demonstrate such a link. One disagrees with such an internationally well-informed expert as Andrew at one's peril, but I think we have to here.
The evidence he actually cites comes from that most unconvincing of sources, New Labour's Housing and Planning Advisory Unit, abolished in 2010. This, he reminds us, said a 12 percent uplift in housing stock improves affordability by 20 percent.
The NHAPAU was set up as part of the Barker process to provide some justification for Whitehall's fantasy house building targets and proved unconvincing. Read the piece I wrote in Planning Magazine some years ago if you want the full dismal background.
But I don't believe even the high levels of building the Government wants to impose are going to have any visible effect on what is a very noisy market.
Councils are curiously reluctant to say how many homes they actually have at present, but a few core strategies do mention a figure.
One such is Aylesbury Vale District Council which has 78,591 homes. The current assessment of need is for it to add 965 new homes each year. That's just 1.2 percent of its total housing stock. The Council is one of the big losers on the new system, but even with its target upped to 1,499, that's still only 1.9 percent of its stock.
I can't believe that would have any discernible effect on the affordability of market housing. Such small changes are lost in the ups and downs of the market and there are other factors in play.
Affordability is affected by the national economy. Just remember the change between 2007 and 2010. Local economic changes can have a big effect too.
And we don't live in the Middle Ages any more. Today's mortgage serfs can choose which manor they live in. If Aylesbury Vale's housing did appear to get more affordable as a result of long-term building then more people would move there and the Invisible Hand of the Market would throttle any benefit.
So the new system has nothing to do with need and little or nothing to do with markets or affordability.
Whether it will do anything to head off the gathering criticism of the Government's pursuit of unsustainable house building is open to question. But it isn't obvious.
Mightier minds than mine will examine the new proposals in more detail. But sadly, we remain as enmired in Dumb Growth as ever.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 16 September 2017


Forever, For Everyone

Defending the environment for everyone, forever, is a pretty big ambition but that, at its most basic, is what sustainability means. But challenges do not come any bigger than promising things to everyone, forever.
That ambition is, of course, what drives the National Trust and has done for more than 100 years now. But it does potentially detonate some very big debates.
An AGM voting form arrived from the Trust this week, inviting me to vote on two important and complex environmental issues.
Firstly, there's to be a vote on whether the Trust should allow hunting with hounds on its land and, secondly, whether it should oppose the Government's plans to put the A303 in a tunnel near Stonehenge.
I can't think of a Smart Growth angle on the hunting debate and people will no doubt have their own views, but the Stonehenge issue cuts to the heart of what the Trust is about and raises some key environmental issues that we cannot run away from forever.
The proposal, you will remember, is to put the A303 trunk road into a 2.9km tunnel where it passes Stonehenge. This follows 30 years of attempts by the Government to turn all of the A303 into a dual-carriageway.
Much of the road is now high-standard dual-carriageway, but a long section around the monument remains a bottleneck. A group of Trust members is sponsoring a vote at the AGM on reversing the Trust Board of Trustees' support for this short tunnel.
They argue the tunnel would only protect part of the World Heritage Site, would do serious damage to other parts of it and threatens to so damage the WHS, it could jeopardize its status. They point out other conservation bodies are opposing the tunnel and that the Trust's reputation could be compromised by support for the 1.4 billion pound scheme.
The Trust's Board, however, recommends rejection of the motion, arguing the WHS is severed by the existing trunk road and that it took 30 years of argument to get the Government to reject still more damaging schemes. It is pushing further amendments to the 2.9km tunnel scheme and says the longer tunnel favoured by some would push up the cost to two billion pounds. It says this alternative could also impact on other archaeological monuments.
There is no doubt this part of Wiltshire is one of the worlds most important archaeological zones. There is no doubt too that a trunk road crossing it is a seriously discordant element and that any scheme of work would seriously damage important archaeology.
But the narrow frame of the debate ignores the much bigger issues raised by the road widening proposal.
The A303 was built from Basingstoke to Honiton in the 1930s to relieve congestion on the A30 trunk road at summer weekends as people got in their Austin 7s and Morris 8s and headed for the West Country. It is one of the finest examples in the UK of the way road building utterly fails to reduce congestion. Its inevitable consequence is to stimulate traffic and accelerate congestion everywhere.
The mad road builders of the 1930s were prepared to sacrifice delicate landscapes like Salisbury Plain and the Blackdown Hills for new highways in the name of congestion relief. But the A30 remains congested and because most of the A303 is now dual-carriageway, stretches such as that round Andover are lined with the usual housing estates, distribution complexes and out-of-town shopping that road building facilitates in unsustainable locations.
Of course the real reason a heavily indebted country wants to waste more than a billion pounds on a couple of miles of dual-carriageway has nothing to do with protecting a World Heritage Site. The justification for frittering away cash urgently needed for, say, reopening key rail links in South West England, is to save motorists' journey times and to stimulate economic and housing growth in the South West.
There are certainly one or two bits of the South West which need regeneration and the region has the usual desperate need for social housing. But neither of those would be secured by widening the A303. All that would do is to encourage car commuters and lorry-based distributors in southern central England to further increase their journeys and greenhouse gas emissions and encourage further unsustainable development in the South West.
That, I'm afraid, is the big environmental issue here. Yes, there's certainly a big conservation issue around the site's archaeological importance and it's beyond belief that anyone would propose a dual-carriageway across a WHS, even partly in a tunnel.
But the big issue is not just that the A303 is in the wrong place, which it is, but that it's already carrying far too much traffic. The Trust could be addressing these big issues, not getting bogged down in debates over the best way to trash a World Heritage Site.
Of course the Board knows elements within the Trust's huge membership are likely to be frightened by anything radical. It got its fingers badly burned over the issue of its LGBT badges and volunteers' reluctance to wear them.
But, as I write, Hurricane Harvey has flooded Texas, Hurricane Irma is smashing Florida and Jose is following up. Unprecedented forest fires and floods have damaged vast areas of the planet and every year it gets worse.
This isn't the Day After Tomorrow. Destructive climate change is here today and it's only going to get worse. And it's everybody's drive to work, weekend air trip somewhere, lorry distribution depot and all the rest of it.
Catastrophic climate change is coming and time is rapidly running out to prevent it. It is a deluded fantasy to be still discussing how to expand roads and airports.
A few years back the Trust dipped a toe in the Smart Growth water and then anxiously drew back when a new director-general got cold feet.
But the coming climate emergency is something no organisation dare ignore. Road building can only exacerbate it.
And that really will affect everyone, forever.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 10 September 2017


Location, Location

Forthcoming building works at the Palace of Westminster have prompted many commentators to propose relocating Parliament, temporarily or permanently, somewhere its inhabitants would have to face some of the very real problems other parts of the UK endure.
Where it would go is a bigger issue. Scotland and Wales already enjoy democratically elected assemblies and so might Northern Ireland again one day. Which leaves poor old democratic-deficit England, but it does contain many attractive places where Parliament could be moved far away from the asset-sucking capital to a region that actually needs it.
The town which claims to be the geographical centre of the UK, or Great Britain at any rate, is Haltwhistle in Northumberland. It's a grand little town, parts of which were literally built out of history from the stones on Hadrian's Wall. Maybe, however, it is a bit small for Parliament.
But it does make the point that the UK would be best represented somewhere in its actual centre, and the Sunderland-Gateshead-Newcastle-Carlisle axis and its surroundings offers many opportunities for such relocation.
Interestingly, my friend Allan Dare suggested in the paper yesterday that not only should we move Parliament but, to make it effective, we should move Whitehall as well.
He points out the wretched decision to can the Midland Mainline electrification would never have happened had the Department of Transport been based in an East Midlands city.
What a happy suggestion. It doesn't take long to start speculating where appropriate places for each department could be.
First up, of course, would be HM Treasury and that should surely go to one of the places where its economic genius has failed to generate the sort of buoyant economy ministers like to imagine.
Gateshead would be an obvious place, a chance to see at first-hand how industries survive in a hostile climate. And proximity to the HMRC offices at Long Benton shows Civil Service life is at least possible outside the M25.
DEFRA could be moved somewhere seriously threatened by inadequate flood or sea defences or where agriculture is being overwhelmed by bricks and mortar. DCLG, likewise, could be moved to the middle of one of the sprawling greenfield housing estates it is promoting, far from adequate infrastructure, public transport or any sort of urban vibe.
A so-called garden town perhaps.
The MoD could go somewhere defence cuts have hit hard, the Ministry of Justice to a high-crime area and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to a former coalfield community where it could examine the effects of policies for business, energy and industrial strategy closely.
You get the idea.
The idea will probably send shudders through some senior officials appalled at separation from Pall Mall or Harvey Nicks. But it's decades overdue.
Perhaps the biggest problem will be where to put the Department for Exiting the European Union.
One wag has suggested Crossmaglen or Strabane, where it could get up close and personal to forthcoming border problems.
But I can't help feeling the best place would be the Goodwin Sands. There it could watch Europe disappearing from view twice every day.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 06 September 2017



I got a bit of criticism a few years back for comparing, in my book, the New Labour Sustainable Communities Plan to what Voltaire said about the Holy Roman Empire. You know, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor indeed an empire.
I fear much the same is true over the concept of Objectively Assessed Need for house building, imposed on English planning in 2012 by the NPPF, and now causing ministers obliged to follow Treasury orders on accelerating greenfield sprawl sleepless nights as restless backbenchers and constituents increasingly realise how mad even current policies are.
Let alone more of same.
There is nothing objective about assessing demand for market homes based on trends which become meaningless whenever the economy changes gear. And it certainly doesn't bear any relationship to need, which is for social housing and housing the elderly, neither of which is likely to figure very prominently.
Subjectively Guessed Profitability might be nearer the mark.
So, with the Conservative Conference less than four weeks away, Sajid Javid might be advised to think twice about imposing an even more environmentally destructive new policy on OAN this month, as current press reports are suggesting.
For it's a hung Parliament, and ministers actually have to listen to those restless back-benchers for once. And they aren't just reflecting restless local Conservatives. Believe me, this gathering tide of anger cuts right across the political spectrum. Millions of people are concerned.
So here are a few ideas for genuinely tackling our housing problems, and indeed building more of the right homes in the right places.
1. Restore genuine regional policies to push jobs to parts of the country where there are plenty of people waiting to do them and homes to accommodate them.
2. Have a genuine look at actual housing need and compare it with the stock we've got.
3. Stop squandering scarce housing land on low-density housing just because developers find it most profitable and because some commentators still cherish long-discredited garden city dreams. Our current building densities are ruinously low and produce anonymous suburbs, not robust communities.
4. Stop increasing greenhouse gas emissions by forcing major greenfield developments on places remote from rail-based public transport networks. We need transit-oriented-development which locates them predominantly within existing conurbations, not more car-dependency.
5. Stop increasing greenhouse gas emissions by road building. Transfer the investment to the rail network, giving priority to urban rail schemes and rail freight and lower priority to ultra-high-speed inter-urban rail.
Plenty more to do, but that would make a promising start.
And would allow ministers and councils to objectively assess housing need.
A worthwhile objective.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 04 September 2017


There Is A Cure For The Summertime Blues

It could be something of a relief to hear that the Government has decided not to rush into announcing changes on assessing local housing need in England.
Just four weeks ago, communities secretary Sajid Javid said the plans would be announced in July. Then, after some daft ideas were floated in sympathetic newspapers, came an announcement the consultation would not be published until Parliament returns in September.
There is no doubt such assessments need reform. The National Planning Policy Framework has spent five years forcing local authorities to release huge tracts of greenfield land to build the wrong type of homes unsustainably in the wrong places.
Sadly, however, the early leaks suggested the Government wanted to make the situation even worse.
According to the reports, Mr Javid was planning to force councils in areas where house prices were judged too high into freeing up greenfield land to build even more houses. And, according to the Daily Mail, he warned this could even happen in the constituencies of the prime minister and other Cabinet colleagues.
The paper claimed a similar plan had been shelved before the general election. It also claimed to be quoting a civil servant who said Conservative councils need to smell the coffee or there wouldn't be a Conservative Party in the future. Owning your own home is a fundamental part of being a Conservative, the alleged civil servant was quoted as saying.
I seem to remember it was a post-war Conservative government that built record numbers of council houses, but there we are. No doubt today's back-bench MPs are smelling the coffee, checking the lack of a Commons majority for any party and realising there's a lot more to sustainable planning than building lots of market homes in the countryside.
Of course, there are very obvious flaws in the leaked plans. Let's suppose Council A, where property prices are very high, is forced to build even more homes than the NPPF is already forcing on it.
To start with, the tiny percentage so added to its overall housing stock will have little or no discernible influence on house prices. Or, indeed, rents.
Secondly, if it did, people would then start moving to Council A's area from adjoining high price areas, forcing prices back where they were. Actually, minister, people have been allowed to live where they like since the decline of serfdom following the Black Death in 1349.
So, as ministers, and indeed party-political civil servants relax on their holidays, perhaps they might care to reflect that the only way they are really going to address the UK's housing needs effectively would be to adopt Smart Growth principles.
And quietly drop their draft consultation paper in the bin.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 03 August 2017


Petrolheads And Other Bright Sparks

It really took no time at all for the wheels to come off the Government plan to reduce roadside nitrogen dioxide in a mere 23 years time.
The plan to end sales of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 certainly grabbed the headlines. It could mean, 40 years from now, there would be few such vehicles on the road. That is, though, on the very dubious assumption they could commit all the Governments of the next four decades to the plan.
Whether it would actually do any good is, however, an even more moot point.
For some time now, Whitehall's petrolheads have been convincing themselves that electric cars are the answer to all the problems caused by more than 30 million petrol and diesel cars we currently impose on the UK environment.
They probably believe that, a few decades hence, electric cars will be able to match hydrocarbon powered vehicles in most, if not all respects.
A petrol car can be refuelled in under five minutes and has a range of at least 400 miles. Electric vehicle recharge times are certainly coming down and mileages going up. They can be recharged in an hour or two and most can now do 100 miles on a full charge, some more.
But that 100 miles or so is on a fine summer's day. Travel on a winter's night, with the headlamps on and the heater banging away, and it comes down dramatically.
Such vehicles are able to carry out many of the roles today's cars do. But not all.
Electricity has to be generated somewhere, of course. Currently around half our electricity comes from fossil fuels, mostly now imported gas, so an electric vehicle is far from carbon free.
In time that proportion will drop and be replaced by a combination of renewables and nuclear. Shifting the energy required by our car fleet from oil to electricity would place a massive new demand on our generating capacity whose shortfalls over the coming years are already causing alarm. So extra capacity would be needed, almost certainly more nuclear power stations. Opinions vary on the safety of nuclear power, but even if it is judged safe, it is going to be much more expensive than today's power.
And then there would have to be a significant beefing up of our power grid, to allow people to charge their cars anywhere and everywhere. More disruption and expense.
But, proponents claim, electric vehicles will at least have zero local emissions. Alas not. The penny is starting to drop that a major source of the particulate emissions from vehicles which cause so much ill-health and mortality is not tailpipe emissions, but particles shed by brakes and tyres.
And, as vehicles become quieter, noise emissions from tyres become more significant. Electric vehicles are heavier than petrol, so all these emissions will be higher.
Modern batteries are complex things and require a variety of metals, including some which are rare, imported and involve huge quantities of fossil energy and waste to produce.
All in all, electric cars are very far from being the environmental free lunch politicians imagine.
But this is not some argument for retaining the petrol-powered status quo. What we need is a move to active travel and public transport and a concentration of development in existing conurbations.
Yet politicians across the spectrum are terrified of upsetting what used to be called Mondeo Man and it's certainly true that, as a nation, we are besotted with our cars.
But they're expensive beasts and, as petrol inevitably gets more expensive in the years to come, travelling by car is going to take more and more of our disposable income
Indeed, one of the factors driving people back into the cities and away from garden suburbs in the United States is the rising cost of driving to work, even though petrol is much cheaper over there. So far, however, the very high transport cost involved in the UK's dispersed and car-dependent living patterns has been a challenge few are yet willing to address.
Marooning people in remote greenfield settlements is a sure way, in the years to come, of condemning them to poverty, however.
This is something Smart Growth campaigners in the US are very clear about.
Here, our transport and planning policies are increasingly returning to the craziness of the 1960s. Richard Beeching, Ernie Marples, Tom Fraser, we honour your memory.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 July 2017


A Name Or A Retraction

Politics is a funny business, but somehow I cannot see young people singing Oh Sajid Javid at the tops of their voices the way some have begun serenading the Labour leader.
But a Sunday newspaper is claiming the communities secretary is a convert to those wanting to bash the rich and ensure homes are made available for young people. Definitely a big change of direction.
Definitely, possibly, maybe anyway if you happen to believe the Mail on Sunday.
If you can give any credence to an article in the paper, Theresa May is declaring war on us NIMBYs and apparently backing plans by Mr Javid to build 300,000 homes a year.
And neither politician will brook any opposition apparently, even from Conservative councils in areas like Maidenhead, the prime minister's own constituency. Because, the paper claims, failure to do so will drive young voters who can't afford to buy into the arms of Mr Corbyn.
This La La Land could only exist in the minds of one of our weirder tabloid papers. It is so far adrift of the real world, you wonder if NASA has helped it go to another planet.
If claims about building 300,000 homes a year in a country whose house building industry much prefers to reap the profits of land speculation to actually building out the planning consents they have helped torture local planning authorities into providing weren't enough, however, the paper then strays into a parallel universe.
At least I hope it's a parallel universe. If its not, there's a real problem.
It quotes an unnamed Whitehall official as saying Mr Javid will target councils who lie about the scale of housing need in their areas.
Well, some of the people who have been heavily involved in the five-year campaign of fantasy local house building needs are Whitehall officials, though builders and property consultants have happily signed up to the mendacious drivel that flows from so-called objectively assessed housing needs assessments and the rest of the stuff imposed by the NPPF.
The official, if they exist, didn't have the courage to give their name, but was nevertheless quoted as saying Whitehall is not prepared to let councils lie about the housing crisis to protect NIMBYs.
Lying about the housing crisis is pretty popular, and Whitehall is far from immune.
Bizarrely, however, the supposedly above-politics official then says that owning your own home is a fundamental part of being a Conservative. And that if a whole generation of young people cannot afford to do that, he or she is then directly quoted as saying we can't complain if they vote Labour.
This is quite astonishing. The paper attributes this, an actual quote, to a Government Official, a civil servant in fact.
It is not the job of civil servants to complain if people vote one way or another. Once they do, democracy is in serious trouble. If they really did say it they should resign immediately
The article's problem with the truth then continues with an assertion that Mr Javid is proposing to force town halls in affluent areas to build more homes.
That is not proposing, it's simply continuing to do exactly what Whitehall has done in England since the NPPF was imposed in 2012. All councils are forced to give up land, mostly greenfield, to fantasy levels of housing consents, whether there is any real local demand or not.
And the type of market homes that get built tend to do little for those in genuine housing need. Nor does the tiny percentage they add to the overall housing stock do anything to bring down house prices.
The unnamed official was then quoted as saying that, from now on, council leaders, who include many Conservatives who should know better, are going to have to start telling the truth.
Well, let's have some truth. If the paper was telling the truth and this really was a civil servant, let's have their name.
And if it wasn't, we'd like to hear exactly what the Government is proposing.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 17 July 2017


Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes

For quite a long time now, more than a century actually, garden cities and their spin-offs have been regarded as the acme of good planning. Regarded, that is, by the garden city movement itself.
Sadly, thanks to its laudable role in the creation of the planning profession, the movement has been able to persuade many others that it is the spiritual guardian of good planning.
As a result, many unacquainted with the ins and outs of planning accept the movement's view that one of the finest, if not the finest, objective of planning is the creation of new garden cities and garden suburbs.
I was reminded of this again by a newly published House of Commons briefing paper entitled Garden Cities, Towns and Villages.
This spends 17 pages examining the history of the garden city movement and the current proposals for new low-density sprawl developments of this type.
It notes on page 7 that there is disagreement about how new towns or garden cities should be delivered and whether there basis should be public sector support or public investment. But not, however, whether they should be delivered.
The MPs and peers have to wait until the 18th and final page to discover the whole concept involves controversies, problems and dissent.
There, it notes criticisms by Lord Rogers and the Campaign to Protect Rural England who call for the alternative focus on brownfield land. And it's a relief to note it finally cites Smart Growth UK's report Garden Towns and Villages, Unwanted, Unnecessary and Unsustainable.
But it's hard to understand why mention of the opposition had to wait for page 18.
The same underlying belief in the moral force of garden cities is apparent in the grandly named Raynsford Review of Planning set up by the current custodian of the garden city flame, the TCPA. Over the next 18 months this will probe how to make the English planning system fairer, better resourced and capable of producing quality outcomes, while still encouraging the production of new homes.
Laudable objectives all, and the TCPA has assembled a task force of eminent people to assist its chair, former housing minister Nick Raynsford. But Mr Raynsford is president of the TCPA and the task force includes other people with a close commitment to the garden city ethos. True, it also includes CPRE's interim chief executive, but he will have plenty to do to keep the Review on track.
The Review is supposed to set out a blueprint and a vision for a new English planning system rather than specifying what its outcomes are supposed to be, but the garden city obsession has managed to seep in anyway. The Call for Evidence asks many important questions, then sneaks in one about the role of new towns legislation in meeting housing needs. That's about outcomes, not processes.
So then, an important and timely inquiry, but one which at least raises concerns about who is asking the questions.
There are, of course, Smart Growth approaches to many of the questions the Review seeks answers to. It must be asked, therefore, whether Smart Growth UK should submit evidence.
Please let me know if you think it should.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 July 2017


Key Infrastructure Challenges

National Infrastructure Commission chairman Lord Adonis has been setting out his 12 immediate infrastructure priorities on which ministers, he instructs, must make rapid progress, whatever the current political realities.
What a bizarrely mixed list he proposes.
His Commission, it may be remembered, is supposed to concentrate on northern connectivity, London transport and energy. Just recently, however, it's got embroiled in further overheating the Oxford-Cambridge corridor with infrastructure to support sprawl.
Lord A's list doesn't wholly ignore the three priorities, but he is certainly off-target. Crossrail 2 might help London's transport and HS3 might help northern connectivity, while flexible power systems, broadband and water and flood defence are certainly worthwhile.
But bizarrely, the list not only includes the laudable decarbonisation of energy, but the massively carbon-increasing Heathrow Third Runway and the East London River Crossing. These reduce the list from the interesting to the absurd.
Well let's suppose for a moment Lord Smartgrowth were made chair of the Commission and were allowed to recommend the top 12 infrastructure projects.
Resisting the urge to fill all 12 slots with light rail projects, it might look something like this.
1. Decarbonisation of energy, including renewables.
2. Flood and sea defences.
3. A national water grid.
4. A light rail system for Leeds and Bradford.
5. A light rail system for Portsmouth and Southampton.
6. A light rail system for Bristol and Bath.
7. A light rail system for London.
8. A light rail system for Belfast.
9. A trans-Pennine rail freight route.
10. Reopening of the Exeter-Okehampton-Plymouth rail link.
11. Electrification of all remaining non-electrified main lines
12. Trunk rail freight routes from the Channel Tunnel to the north and Wales.
Actually, once you start thinking out of the high-carbon box, there are hundreds of major schemes which would help prepare us for the future. I'm sure you could come up with your own lists.
I keep adding to mine and it doesn't look at all like the one prepared by Lord Adonis. Maybe you could come up with one.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 28 June 2017


The Right Homes In The Right Places

Six days of debate were promised on the Government programme set out in the Queens Speech and, out of a sense of duty, I read through the discussions of housing and social care on 22 June.
I hope I saved you the trouble, because little of it was very edifying. Despite a background of near-zero social home construction, homelessness, unaffordability and endless construction of low-density, car-dependent sprawl in the wrong places, MPs queued up to make party political points and evade the main issues.
Outside politics, however, people are beginning to say it's time to build the right homes in the right places. Amen to that.
So, rather than summarize the debate, I thought I'd have an initial stab at a housing manifesto for the Sensible Party. You're a member of that, by the way.
It's very much a few initial thoughts and it needs refining and adding to. But it's time we began this debate.
It isn't a Housing White Paper, more a Housing White Screen. Perhaps we should call it Fixing Our Broken Housing Policy.
Here it is.
1. Build homes for the people who need them. The Government's own projections say 74 percent of growth in households in England will be over-65s and most of the rest will be single people. There is no reason to think the rest of the UK is significantly different. But the rhetoric, backed by policy, remains building market homes for young families.
2. Build homes for the people who can't afford them. Under successive governments, building of socially rented housing has collapsed to almost zero. A growing percentage of the population can neither afford to buy nor to rent in the private sector. Homelessness and rough sleeping are growing.
3. Stop forcing people to try to move where the jobs are and go back to moving jobs where the people are.
4. Restore brownfield-first to housing policy. This wouldn't stop homes being built, it wouldn't even totally prevent greenfield homes being built. It would merely encourage homes to be built in the right places.
5. Restore minimum density standards for home building. That builders are allowed to squander our scarce building land because they find building as few, not as many, houses on a given plot most profitable is a national disgrace. This doesn't mean high-rise, it means traditional urban densities.
6. Ensure major housing developments are transit-oriented. That means more than just ensuring they're within 800m of a railway station. It means giving them access to rail-based urban transit networks. Major developments more than 800m from transit should not be allowed
7. Concentrate the majority of residential development within the footprint of major conurbations.
8. Reform England's National Planning Policy Framework and the planning policies of the devolved administrations to incorporate Smart Growth principles.
9. Create a system under which greenfield developers would pay for reclamation of brownfield land.
10. Protect and enhance old buildings and use them as a catalyst for regeneration.
11. Enforce standards of design that really do respect local traditions.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 23 June 2017


The Times Have Become Interesting

Just when you thought that politics had become predictable, even a first-past-the-post electoral system manages to throw up a result to surprise everyone. Interesting times indeed.
And even though the new Government looks superficially like the old, despite the addition of Democratic Unionist Party supporters, don't be deceived, things have changed. This is a very different House of Commons even from the 2015 one which gave the Conservatives only a slender majority.
Whether you can't wait for Brexit or you share Lord Heseltine's view that it's a cancer at the heart of the Conservative Party, the issue is likely to continue to dominate, but that doesn't mean other policies aren't going to change.
One question is whether the DUP has any influence over planning policy on the eastern side of the Irish Sea. In Northern Ireland the Party has pursued a very laissez-faire approach to planning and has fought for things like out-of-town shopping and building in scenic areas. But, of course, English planning policy will probably remain an area where the Conservatives will hope to retain some measure of control.
So the fate of the housing white paper will be interesting. Its promoter, Gavin Barwell, lost his Commons seat but returns as chief of staff at Downing Street.
The white paper itself made some very modest concessions towards a more sustainable planning, but the operative word there is modest. It barely touched the full sprawl-promoting rigour of the NPPF's provisions on housing.
But there are tough times for this country ahead and even Brexit's most ardent supporters agree it creates a need to change the way we do things.
Two seldom-mentioned but pressing issues as we cut ourselves off from Europe are our supplies of food and oil. We are self-sufficient in neither and obtaining both presents challenges for a heavily indebted country.
It makes absolutely no sense for a country with a rising population that imports more than a third of its food to build on its farmland.
This must stop and can be stopped, while still meeting our housing needs. We simply have to drop the low-density sprawl approach and adopt Smart Growth approaches. It can be done.
It makes absolutely no sense either to go on increasing the amount of oil we consume, and the greenhouse gases we emit, by building new roads. They don't solve congestion, they increase it. Happily here's a Smart Growth policy that will save Philip Hammond tens of billions of pounds.
And, just as in America in response to the Administration's climate change policies, here is an opportunity for a local voice to make itself heard.
An unstable and divided House of Commons will need calm, measured and constructive voices from outside.
This is an opportunity, not a threat.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 12 June 2017


Corridor Vision

One of the oddities of the garden city movement is its obsession with the northern Home Counties and the south-east Midlands.
Perhaps this is because the area was the location of its only two garden cities and the first of the new towns they spawned, at Stevenage. Or perhaps it's because the movement's Holy City of Milton Keynes was dumped there, on the bizarre grounds that it was half way between London and Birmingham.
Happily, MK's former assertion that one day all cities will be like Milton Keynes has been lost to history. Today, no-one in their right mind would build a new city at ruinously low densities, acutely car-dependent and on productive farmland, though sprawl continues to destroy greenfield land in endless garden suburbs.
In recent times, however, the obsession with this part of England has morphed into what's now called the Oxford-Cambridge Corridor, or O2C for the less literate amongst us.
It has even recently gained the attention of that dismal quango, the National Infrastructure Commission, which has evidently forgotten it is supposed to concentrate on northern connectivity, London transport and energy. It's also supposed to foster sustainable economic growth but has evidently decided to place its bets instead on an overheated area that is vigorously sucking much-needed growth away from the rest of the country.
The dismal trend of international technology companies to locate their UK operations in places which have Oxford or Cambridge in their postal addresses whether they have any connection with the universities or not, as if the majority of cutting-edge technological research didn't happen elsewhere, is an unfortunate and unnecessary fact of life. It means those two cities and their surrounding countryside are under intense pressure to accommodate housing and employment growth which could, and should, be sustainably located in the areas that actually need one or the other.
I was reminded of the obsession with this part of England in an article in April's Town and Country Planning magazine by the distinguished planning consultant and garden city guru, David Lock.
Professor Lock lauds the Commission for its recent work on the Corridor which, a bit like Herr Hitler's plans for the Danzig Corridor which came to encompass most of Poland, has apparently expanded to include swathes of Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. He calls it a millipede, with many legs.
While even Professor Lock admits this geographical spread is too big to make one plan for, he demands creation of a small team of experienced persons with Sharp Elbows and an appreciation of the Long Term Mission to push it.
That mission apparently includes a new Oxford-Cambridge dual carriageway, with the result that carbon emissions from the inevitable low-density greenfield sprawl would be as high as possible.
The Commission's vision for the Corridor evidently enshrines that dangerously seductive national economic strategy called Backing Winners. It says Oxford and Cambridge have the UK's highest productivity, highest proportion of citizens holding NVQ4 and above, two of the five top-ranked world universities, 3,000 technology firms and 30-year population growths between 20 and 30 percent.
And to remind us that climate change concerns count for little when pursuing what's called Sustainable Economic Growth, the Commission breathlessly points out that the Corridor also hosts the UK's nine billion pound motor sport industry. Poop-poop.
You might have thought the Commission's recognition that house prices in Oxford and Cambridge are second only to London's would be a good reason for shifting economic development to conurbations where the great majority of UK scientific research is done.
But no, motorways and sprawl are the answer because, apparently, lack of sufficient and suitable housing for the technocrats presents a fundamental risk to the success of the area. The fundamental risk to the rest of the national economy that comes from backing winners in this way doesn't matter, it seems.
So maybe it's time we all sharpened our elbows and began fighting for the economy of the rest of the country. And stopped pumping O2 into O2C.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 24 May 2017


Come On, Be Regional

One of the things that emerged from our new report on garden towns and villages is just how desperate it has become for the incoming government, whoever that is, to address regional disparities in both local economies and local housing needs.

One of the most important things planning does is to try to match local housing supply to local economic needs. In a well-balanced economy, that would mean any big new development would need to blend new houses with new employment space. And such objectives appears in most of the proposals for garden towns and villages.

But we don't remotely have a well-balanced economy. It would be really crude to say the north needs jobs while the south needs homes because that's only true at all in England, rather than the rest of the UK, and even in England there are huge local variations. But nevertheless, anyone who travels around the UK will know just how different things are.

In parts of southern England, for instance, there are big skill shortages and only the better off can afford to buy a home, or even, in extreme cases, rent one. But in many of the former industrial areas like northern England, south Wales, central Scotland etc., decent houses can be bought for five-figure sums, but jobs are hard to find.

This isn't a failure of the planning system. Planners do what they can in their local areas. It's been a long-term failure of central government. That's been true under successive governments, let it be noted, as we're being determinedly non-party-political, especially with an election pending.

The Town and Country Planning Association has rightly spent years calling for a national spatial plan to address these inequalities which would ensure a better balance of work and home across the nation. Now, if the Association could only transfer the energy of its damaging garden city campaign to that cause, how beneficial that would be.

Politicians of all parties, meanwhile, direct their housing policies to calls for building what are called Family Homes, allegedly to make it cheaper for young families to buy (or more recently to rent) their own homes. As a parent I'm sure that's a laudable aim.

But look at the actual figures. These demonstrate that it's not families who form the new households. No less than 74 percent of the projected growth in households is over-65s and nearly all of the rest is single people. The actual demand for family homes is either static or declining.

But we aren't shaping our housing policy to deal with the type of housing that elderly people need, nor for impecunious young single people nor single parents. What many single people and single parents, not to mention a vast number of impecunious families, need is social housing somewhere in an existing town where there are jobs and good public transport.

What elderly people need is more complex. It's very easy for us older people to be seduced into imagining we need a vast great house and garden miles from the shops/doctor/hospital etc.. I also know, after looking after aged parents and parents-in-law that this is dangerous and can all go to pot very quickly. We need an urgent national debate on how best to house elderly people and I suspect the implications of that terrify politicians. They much prefer to pretend they are passionately concerned with young voters, sorry, families.

I quite accept that house prices for first-time-buyers are too high in parts of the country, though equally there are parts of the country where the housing market is near collapse and you can't give them away.

But the argument that politicians like to use that building lots more houses would bring down prices at all is a very cruel fallacy. As long ago as 2005, when these policies were being formulated, the Treasury's Barker Steering Group was told by its own experts that, however many houses you build, it would have no discernible effect on prices for at least 10 years and even then, only marginally. The reason is that the number of houses you can physically build adds only a minute proportion to the overall housing stock, so its effects are minimal.

A cynic might jest that a far more effective way of bringing down house prices would be to let the banks invest money they don't actually own in junk financial derivatives and plunge the country into generational debt. That brought prices down sharply in 2008 and it looks today rather as if we're teetering towards a similar credit binge, whatever the effects of Brexit. But, on the whole, I'd rate it a very poor way of making housing affordable.

As set out in the Better Way chapter of our garden towns and villages report, we urgently need to do several things, but perhaps the most important is regional policy.

It makes no sense to build a garden town or village in an area of high house prices and then to include substantial employment space within it. It might be good theoretical planning, but those new employees also need homes and they will simply add more pressure to local housing. It may sound heretical, but some parts of southern England actually have, in one sense, too many jobs. They can't house all the employees they need.

Yet economic growth policies keep piling into investment the growth areas of southern England. Meanwhile former industrial areas are full of homes including very nice houses for five-figure sums. Many are full of brownfield sites too. And they're crying out for those jobs as there have plenty of people to fill them. There are many such areas.

For those of us who live in southern England, it's easy to assume the whole country is like this, but it's not. I guess the greater part of the country needs jobs rather than homes. But I don't hear much, if any, political debate about that from any party.

Of course we need to build some houses in the south and some of these would have to go on greenfield sites, but only once the local brownfield sites are used. Englands 2012 National Planning Policy Framework abandoned brownfield-first which secured this. Contrary to what house builders say, it didn't stop greenfield. But the system we now have actively militates against brownfield use (and there are many parts of the country like north-west England where it's plentiful). What we now have is, in effect, greenfield-first.

Equally it makes no sense to build a garden village, with thousands of homes, in a northern town where the housing market is near collapse.

How Brexit will affect the regional balance remains to be seen. Optimists believe it will revive British industry, possibly at the expense of London's financial services. Pessimists believe the hit to our exports and financial performance will just create further damage in depressed areas.

But either way, we desperately need effective regional policies, not just fine words.

Hello, politicians, you should be listening.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 07 May 2017


Garden Towns And Villages - Unwanted, Unnecessary And Unsustainable

The garden towns and villages approved by the Government are supposed to have enormous potential to deliver homes, bring jobs and boost local economies. They are also supposed to enjoy community support.
A new report from Smart Growth UK, however, shows just how wide of the mark ministers' ambitions are and how misguided are the local authorities who have bought into the scheme.
The report examines the plans for 10 garden towns and 14 garden villages and finds them desperately wanting in a wide variety of ways.
Garden towns are supposed to be transformative, but most are simply collections of urban extensions with little or no relationship to one another, bundled up and pretending to be communities.
Only three of the garden villages, meanwhile, get anywhere near DCLG's stipulation that they should be discrete settlements.
Few of the proposals would make much, or any, use of brownfield land but all are low-density sprawl with transport links which are universally dependent on the private car.
A few have a railway station somewhere near, but nowadays we know it takes much more than a single station to avoid most journeys being made by car. The very low densities militate against walking and cycling and ensure that few of them would enjoy much more sustainable transport than low-frequency bus services.
Even in the highly unlikely event that all of them went ahead, they would be unable to generate more than 10,000 homes a year, a tiny fraction of what the Government believes to be necessary. And those commitments to include employment space mean the ones in areas of high employment would do even less to meet local housing shortages, as they would attract employees from elsewhere.
Meanwhile the two garden villages in areas where the economy is weak would simply further damage failing local housing markets.
Most SGUK reports in the past have worked with national organisations to compile them. This time our report followed work with some of the local groups opposing garden towns and villages on the ground.
Many communities are fighting greenfield development and, of course, garden towns and villages represent a tiny proportion of the flood of it presently afflicting our land. But they come armed with a lot of moralizing and green-wash from their promoters and are very much the shock troops of the sprawl movement.
Opposition to them is powerful and well-reasoned, but is being comprehensively ignored by Whitehall and the handful of councils who have fallen in with this programme.
Crimes against the environment, however, are not victimless crimes. These communities will not give up without a fight.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 May 2017


Party Time For Politicians

As you may have noticed from the wall-to-wall politics on your TV or in your newspaper, there are elections pending.
It would have been nice, of course, if all this coverage and interest were devoted to the forthcoming local elections, but it took a general election to get people widely engaged.
We get the word politics from the Greek for citizenship, though the Romans got in the etymological act too with their affairs of the city. And beyond the responsibilities of citizens and urban affairs, these days we have to include the countryside whose importance may just be creeping up the political agenda.
These are central to our concerns, but non-governmental organisations and coalitions, including Smart Growth UK, have to tread carefully at election time. We cannot avoid being political, for citizenship and the affairs of the Polis are what we're all about, but we must avoid being party-political.
Fortunately Smart Growth attracts support across the political spectrum, reflecting its origins in the USA, where Democrats and Republicans alike are supporters. And so it should remain.
NGOs are certainly taking the opportunity of a general election to advance their non-party political cause. The manifestos published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Town and Country Planning Association show what I mean.
CPRE's manifesto calls on all parties to include six commitments in their own manifestos. No mention of Smart Growth sadly, but the Campaign does call for investment in urban regeneration, smarter travel, farming and recycling, disinvestment in road building and transposition of EU environmental law into national.
Perhaps surprisingly, CPRE's current appeal for funds for lobbying against over-inflated housing targets didn't make it into the manifesto, but perhaps that could look a bit partyish. The Campaign restricts itself to calling for stronger protection for green belts, national parks and AONBs.
The obvious reflection is to wonder why they are highlighting just such a small proportion of our countryside and not the bulk of it which is not so designated. Of course CPRE has particular affection for green belts, having helped create them. But the bulk of the current greenfield sprawl flood is hitting areas not so protected, like south Hampshire which has never enjoyed a green belt.
The TCPA manifesto goes one better, with seven calls. It says the existing planning system is in crisis, deregulated, under-resourced and lacking clear national vision. Amen to that.
Its seven recommendations include more social housing, community well-being, a community planning act, a national spatial plan, repairing the damage done by the NPPF, land value capture and a royal commission on climate change resilience. Amen to all of them too.
But then they go and spoil it all with a call for a new generation of garden cities and a stronger New Towns Act. It's that garden city philosophy that has undermined so much sustainable planning and needlessly destroyed so much of our countryside for a century now.
That is, I'm afraid, a political point, as well as an environmental, economic and social one. But it's not a party-political one.
Just one that politicians of all parties would do well to ponder.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 27 April 2017


We Are The Moderates Now

We live at a time when our political and economic systems have become dangerously unstable.
Many of our political parties are in turmoil, the international situation is grave, demagoguery is replacing democracy. Growing numbers now question the neo-liberal economic system which has dominated for more than 30 years and which continues to concentrate the world's wealth in a tiny and shrinking minority but it seems invincible.
Politicians appear unable to agree on moderate ways forward. Few economists suggest viable alternatives to neo-liberalism and none seems able to suggest a realistic way of getting there from here.
Everywhere there are accusations of extremism. Everyone accuses everyone else of it. We are, apparently, all extremists now.
Yet it's still galling to be labelled an extremist for questioning the 100 year UK development paradigm of low-density, car-dependent, greenfield garden suburbs. Some still argue that ministers who tinker with Eric Pickles' vision of a grey and suburban land by throwing a few tiny crumbs towards brownfield development are the voice of moderation.
But they're not. Those who continue to support the vision of the Treasury neo-liberal fanatics by tearing up our planning system in favour of greenwash and sprawl, even tinkered with a bit, are the extremists.
Smart Growth, based as it is on international best practice on compact, functional development and sustainable transport, may be powerfully at odds with Government policy.
But it's them who are the extremists. We are the moderates.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 18 April 2017


These Dangers Are Real And Threaten You!

The time may have come to stop pussyfooting around when we warn about the dangers of catastrophic climate change and let people know the real horrors that lie ahead.
With extreme weather events now almost a daily occurrence somewhere on the planet, Arctic sea ice melting at unprecedented rates and yet another Warmest Year on Record, you might have thought this was obvious.
But Rebecca Willis' new research with the Green Alliance and Lancaster University is very revealing. It shows how politicians speak about climate change as an economic and technical issue and neglect its human and social dimensions.
They are selective in using scientific evidence and make little mention of abrupt or irreversible change. They appear to be trying to tame the issue to secure political acceptability, but soothing the public like this effectively precludes the radical responses needed.
The voices the public are listening about air pollution, however, aren't remotely soothing, let alone technical. A case in point was the Daily Mail's front page which screamed this week that Theresa May would be protecting the owners of diesel cars.
Well I'm sure the prime minister has weightier things on her mind than protecting Daily Mail readers' freedom to poison their children and themselves. But it's symptomatic of the pussyfooting approach to things like diesel vehicle pollution. We have a tiger of climate change denial by the tail.
Some three and a half decades ago, I worked on a public inquiry into banning heavy lorries in London. The night and weekend ban that ensued was eventually undermined by the abolition of the Greater London Council, but one of the controversial things the inquiry did raise even then was the issue that diesel exhausts could be carcinogenic. I particularly remember that as I'm proud to say I drafted that chapter.
It produced predictable howls from the haulage industry, but we were right and they were wrong and an unknown number of people have died of cancer since then.
Well, people continue to ignore the issue and are buying more diesel cars than ever, despite the testing scandal. Manufacturers continue to flog them as an environmental alternative. The Daily Mail presumably thinks its readers think with their wallets on issues like this.
One particularly alarming feature of the concerns about diesel vehicles is that some commentators who should know better are saying the issue has become more urgent than climate change.
Both dangers are urgent and the really good thing is that we can tackle them both in exactly the same way.
By cutting traffic.
And not pussyfooting around the issue.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 07 April 2017


A Garden Town Languishes

The news of insolvency problems at the vast sprawling Priors Hall Park development somewhere near Corby could be an early sign that the garden towns and garden villages project is already hitting trouble.
Part of the north Northamptonshire so-called garden town, Priors Hall and the other proposed urban extensions that constitute it is, of course, no sort of town at all.
What they are is a loose collection of garden suburbs miles apart with no sort of connection with each other, and little with the towns they're adding low-density greenfield sprawl to.
The BBC report reminds us that the scheme long precedes the current garden towns and villages programme and was simply one dismal result of the passionate pursuit of urban sprawl that local authorities in Northamptonshire have been pushing for years.
In 2010, Priors Hall was supposed to have 5,100 homes and was marketed as North Londonshire, despite having no connection with north London. A vast area of the country has since been trashed to make way for the garden suburb.
Few homes have since arrived, with only 600 built in seven years. But the pictures in the BBC report reveal the scale of devastation involved.
It looks for all the world like a recently abandoned opencast coal site.
One has to ask whether this could mean the whole disastrously unsustainable garden towns and villages project is going to follow the very similar New Labour Eco Towns project into well-deserved oblivion.
Let's hope so. Meanwhile people who should know better continue to argue the programme fulfils the ideals of Ebenezer Howard and represents the very best in planning.
Sadly it represents some of the very worst in planning and should have been buried with the 20th century.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 29 March 2017


Greenfield Every Time

Green belts are much in the news at the moment as campaigners all over the country strive to protect them from the tsunami of unwanted and unnecessary low-density development being forced on them.
But despite this gathering tide of public opinion, you still see Sprawl Lobby practitioners moaning that much of the land protected as green belt is not of high landscape quality. Which only goes to prove what a manipulative bunch they are.
Green belt land was never expected to have high landscape quality. What it is supposed to do is keep land open in perpetuity, for a whole host of reasons. But those profiting from sprawl or, worse still, those ideologically committed to it, seldom worry about misleading the public.
I'm keen to support those protecting green belts. And that's not The Green Belt incidentally. England has 14, Scotland 10, Wales one and Northern Ireland 30. So it's green belts plural.
But please let's remember that green belt designation only protects around 12.4 percent of England, 16 percent of Northern Ireland and smaller percentages of Scotland and Wales. That leaves the vast majority of our countryside up for grabs and, boy-oh-boy, are they grabbing it.
So can we please direct our campaigns to protecting greenfield land, not simply green belts. They're all too easy to roll on to the next bit of greenfield land.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 13 March 2017


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


Petrolhead Paradise

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


Old News

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


Potted History

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


National Distrust

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