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16 August 2016

Wanted: master planners to build a new Britain

Clive Aslet

A horribly complex system is letting down young people who can’t afford to rent or buy a home

The death of the Duke of Westminster last week reminds us of what the Victorians could do, and how our own age falls woefully short of such achievement. His predecessors developed Belgravia from an area of countryside called the Five Fields, and Pimlico from marsh and market garden: Belgravia remains part of the Grosvenor estate and some of the most desirable real estate anywhere.

Pimlico, sold to pay death duties in the 20th century, has gone up in the world. That’s because it was planned with squares and gardens, broad streets and public buildings. The flexible accommodation suits families as much as occupants of pied-à-terre’s – providing that they can pay the exorbitant prices.

Contrast today. We seem incapable of building the number of new houses we need. There’s been no major new town since Milton Keynes. The new developments we do succeed in erecting are intensely unpopular.

These are catastrophic failures, the cost of which is borne by the thousands of young people who cannot find a home, either to rent or buy at a reasonable figure. Of course, except for a few regulations to deter jerry builders, the 1st Marquess of Westminster could do as he liked. Today, we have a planning system of huge complexity and its sclerotic procedures obstruct development of all kinds, good and bad.

Robert Adam, whose practice, ADAM Architecture, is the largest traditional architect in the world, says it takes a minimum of four years between planning and the cutting of the first turf of a 4,000 residential unit development. The reason for this horribly slow pace isn’t the rate at which new homes can be built, but the difficulty of “getting to the point where you can start to build them”. In other words, planning.

This agony is made worse by cuts in local authority planning offices. Fewer officials are available to deal with the bureaucratic burden, but nothing is done to lighten the load. Adam tells me of a scheme in north London for which his office has attended 40 meetings with council officers before planning permission could be obtained. While planners are happy enough to fuss over details, they often fail completely in their most important, most basic and biggest task: telling developers where they can build.

Vulture developers circle until they spy a weakness, and then strike

They are in part charged to do so through local plans, which are guidelines for the development of the local area. The drawing up of such plans entails public consultation, planning inquiries and government inspectors. They are so elaborate that 45 per cent of local authorities have not finalised their plans.

This creates a problem that is particularly acute in the countryside. Failure to provide a strategic vision leaves towns and villages vulnerable to vulture developers, who circle until they spy a weakness that will allow them to strike. This leads to the worst kind of piecemeal development.

Small-scale projects are simply easier to accomplish than the volumes needed to meet the housing shortage. What’s needed is a government tsar who will identify major sites, which can be designated as development zones — with the incentives that revitalised London’s Docklands and Liverpool in the 1980s. But unlike Docklands, built in a spirit of laissez-faire, with little investment in public spaces, these new development zones must be master-planned, as Thomas Cundy and Thomas Cubitt master-planned Belgravia in the 19th century.

Sites do exist. Outside Ramsgate is the defunct Manston airfield. Despite the shortage of airport capacity in Britain it lost its owners £100 million over 16 years, before closing two years ago. And yet politicians cling to the idea that it could be reopened, rather than — as is surely inevitable — turned into a significant housing development. A planning application for 2,500 homes has been submitted but Thanet district council’s response has been to order a public inquiry and commission a report. These investigations could have been set in motion years ago, when it was obvious that the airport was failing.

Across the country are shopping malls that are profligate in their use of land. As big as some farms, they are covered in low-rise retail sheds and acres of car park — and their business model has been undermined by the number of people shopping online. Unsuccessful malls could be redeveloped, as has happened in the US. It would compromise nobody’s beloved view, or important habitat; on the contrary, if well designed as a mixture of four or five-storey terraces and gardens, redevelopment would be an architectural blessing. The same shops could even continue to exist on the ground floor, with basement car parking beneath.

For this to happen requires a leap of the imagination that local authorities, tied up in their own red tape, aren’t able to make. A planning tsar, however, would be able to deliver tax sweeteners to encourage such development to happen; he or she could lay down a presumption in favour of development, making it difficult for the local authority to refuse planning permission except on strong grounds, as is the case with disused agricultural buildings.

I admit this would not help the cause of local democracy; but an insistence on good master planning, by a practice that will study in detail the character of the area, would make up for this deficit. And something has to be done to get Britain building houses, or there will be another wasted decade.

Clive Aslet is a former editor of Country Life

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