January 11th 2017
Over the holidays I have been reading Gillian Tindall’s excellent book, “The Tunnel Through Time”, in which she traces the history of those areas that the new Crossrail will pass under. I was very much struck by her comments on the destruction of the community of Stepney by the planning decisions made in the post war years. It seems to me that history is repeating itself now in other areas where the natural heritage of the countryside is being degraded by the relentless depredations of a different, but equally destructive, planning regime.
The assumption that underlaid the planning blitz of the sixties was that wholesale destruction of tired housing and the erection of large-scale tower blocks of identical units for modern-living would solve the social problems that apparently disfigured the existing communities. It was not a success story. Many of the new tower blocks proved to be poorly designed and much disliked by the hapless residents, whilst the social cement that had held together families and communities through traumatic events like the world wars was destroyed. There are still “sink-estates” in this country which were created to house the displaced populations of the great cities and which still suffer from the social consequences of this massive, ill-conceived attempt at social-engineering. The tower blocks were high, but the architectural merit was not, and the underlying assumption that all people needed from their homes was a few square metres of living space was an enormous failure of understanding of the way in which communities grow and function.
I am concerned that the relentless focus on mass delivery of housing that distinguishes current planning policy is going to produce the same kind of long-term mistake. I have noticed that in my own town, which is planned to expand massively in the next fifteen years, there is a genuine gap between the intentions of the planners and the realities. Our town boundaries are tight, so our expansion is into our neighbouring rural parishes, two of which will be changed irrevocably. This has already created enormous amounts of recrimination and bitterness between neighbours who used to live cheek-by-jowl in great amity. The important piece of infra-structure that was to underpin this planned expansion has not yet left the starting-blocks and, in consequence, as our population increases our over-strained roads become even more congested and worn. Schools on the popular side of the town suffer increasingly from over-crowding and the waiting-lists in doctors’ surgeries grow relentlessly. Only part of the grand design is being delivered and the powers-that-be are themselves powerless to change this situation or to effect an improvement.
In the last fifty years, the strong industrial base that under-pinned the wealth and work of the town has gradually eroded. Without new industrial opportunities, the town’s expansion will simply complete a process of turning what used to be a proud market-town with a healthy manufacturing sector, into a commuter town. It is a strange kind of commuter settlement however, for the public transport system is largely conspicuous by its absence with a limited train service from a station that is miles from the new areas of settlement and a bus service that barely functions. The car is king and with every additional piece of development the roads become more crowded and air-pollution rises. Meanwhile, the green spaces that used to define the town are constantly eroded by ad-hoc development achieved through planning appeals and other manipulations of a broken system. Not only shall we have enormous swathes of housing estates, but every small green area is also being subsumed by the urge to develop.
Emerging from all this is a concern for the social fabric of our town. People who live in closed estates on the edges of the town and who commute to work and shop are less likely to become involved in the activities that hold the community together. In this town, our hospital, our theatre, our meeting halls and our public gardens have all been built by public subscription and through the efforts of voluntary groups. That kind of public endeavour only arises when there is a sense of community belonging. When even the small green areas where people have traditionally walked their dogs or taken their families to walk and play, vanish under the onslaught of bricks and concrete, then we are truly in danger of losing the necessary element of personal connection.
I accept that good housing is a necessary requirement of a civilised society and that there is a national housing crisis. I don’t think that the solution lies in the kind of sledge-hammer approach that is currently being followed. It is assumed that every town and village will experience inward-migration and the predictions are based on calculations that are reminiscent of a fish-monger adding his finger to the scales when weighing the fish. Who, apart from the large development companies, does this act of governmental self-deception benefit? There has been a failure, at national level to predict correctly where the migration will take place and why. Why does it make any kind of sense to assume that every settlement will need to expand or that people should be housed where there is no work and limited infrastructure? It is not how settlements develop in the normal way.
The destruction of the past and the creation of massive white elephants does not only apply in the built-up areas of the great cities such as London. A sensitive planning regime would understand that housing is only part of a much wider social need and would allow communities not only to shape their futures, but to conserve their pasts. Social cohesion arises from social interaction and our communities will not survive successfully if we break down the other building blocks of neighbourliness and civic pride. The really big question of our times is not only how do we house those who need it, but how do we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past where town development is concerned and how do we persuade those who call the shots to listen to us?
December 2nd 2016
Since our National Conference back in October, there have been some interesting developments in the world of planning. Whilst the most appropriate collective noun for planning decisions might seem to be a bewilderment, there has been the occasional victory. In Cheshire, that has taken the form of a refusal by the Secretary of State to allow a development by Gladman in Goostrey. Jodrell Bank, which is Britain’s major radio telescope objected to the proposal on the grounds of interference with radio wave activity and the SoS upheld the decision. Its nice to know that there are other national interests beside boosting the housing supply. Incidentally, here in Cheshire there is no shortage of permissions; the major challenge is to persuade builders to stop messing about and get on with the job.
It was also heartening to discover that Sayid Javid has apparently noticed that major developers are making an extreme sport out of the practice of land-banking. In an article in The Economist this week, he panned them for this and they made the usual excuses. It would be even more heartening if Mr Javid made the connection between this practice and the way in which developers use it to screw even more permissions out of beleaguered Local Authorities. Ordinary taxpayers like ourselves could be excused for thinking that major players in the development industry appear to be using the planning system as some kind of private investment system.
Other news this week includes an article in the Guardian by Luke Murphy of the Institute for Public Policy Research in which he calls for far-reaching policies such as land reform, devolution of more planning control and for London to be treated as a special case. The WhitePaper is currently being prepared by the Government and now is a good time for people to lobby the ministers about their own particular planning bugbears.
More worrying news is that the government and its advisors are still pursuing a policy of abandoning long-held planning standards to satisfy the demands of the development industry. The return of the rabbit-hutch style of development with as few mod-cons as possible will no doubt fuel even more resentment in the bosoms of those who are paying over a considerable amount of their monthly emoluments for the privilege of living in these bijou residences. Locally, a story is going the rounds about somebody who moved into a house on a new development and discovered that the show home had special furniture, slightly below the normal size, to make the rooms look bigger. Naturally, there is nowhere to store the vacuum cleaner or the ironing board.
Last week’s flood events, and the arguments about who is responsible for preventing this kind of thing left me wondering whether the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. Whilst carrying out a bit of research last month I came across the interesting fact that last year 8% of new addresses were built on areas of high flood risk. I understand that it was 7% in the previous year. These facts are culled from government statistics but maybe I am the only person who finds it bizarre that nobody “in charge” sees this as a failing of the planning system. If we don’t want the enormous expense and trauma of flooded housing, maybe we shouldn’t build on flood risk areas? Is anybody out there listening?