Penrose JohnJohn Penrose is the Member of Parliament for Weston-super-Mare.  Follow John on Twitter.

ConHome readers are intelligent,
aesthetically literate folk so – of course – you’ll already be familiar with
my article in The Daily
 on protecting the UK’s favourite city and
townscapes. But on the off chance you missed it, or if the details have
temporarily slipped your memory, here’s the summary version: all cities are in
permanent, slow-motion flux, so the skylines and views we all take for
granted in our towns or cities have been built up from successive layers of old
and new construction. With a few exceptions like London’s Mall or Bath’s Royal
Crescent, they are accidental rather than planned. So some are gorgeous, while
others are awful. If we want our towns and cities to be beautiful places to
live and work – and, since most of us spend the majority of our lives in them,
we should – then we must keep the good ones when, over centuries, the others
are ripped down and redeveloped.

How? Well, we already protect individual buildings by listing
them, and a few narrow views of places like St Paul’s Cathedral from specific
vantage points too. But there’s nothing to protect the local, day-to-day beauty
of your neighbourhood park, high street or canal towpath. So I’m proposing a
system of ‘listed views’, like listed buildings, to make sure the best ones
stay safe.

Now, as the man who wrote the Party’s policy on slashing red
tape, you’d think I’m the last person to propose yet more rules and bureaucracy
to tie up our developers and slow down the economic recovery. And you’d be
right. Because, if we spend a little time deciding which views are worth
keeping, we can relax the rules and regulations on all the others. For the
first time, builders and developers would know their plans are safe from being
ambushed by someone with a cap and clipboard deciding they need to preserve a
view that isn’t officially designated on any map, of a building that’s nowhere
near their site. Instead they’d simply check the list of protected views, work
their plans around any that affected their site, and get cracking. If you’re
willing to invest millions to regenerate a rundown urban area, you want speed
and certainty. Slashing unpredictable bureaucracy that slathers on costs and
delays would deliver it for you.

Take your local High Street. Everyone is worried that, because we’re all
shopping online, it’s going to die. Frankly I doubt the problems are terminal,
but everyone agrees that – like everything that has ever walked the Earth –
High Streets will have to evolve to survive. No-one’s perfectly sure how, of
course, but tomorrow’s High Streets will certainly look very different from
today. The successful ones will probably be places to meet and enjoy yourself, with
plenty of bars, restaurants, cinemas and so forth, rather than temples to
shopping that turn into ghost-towns by 6pm.

But many High Streets will find it hard to make the switch, because the
buildings aren’t designed for it. Look at the upper floors next time you walk
down one and you’ll see huge amounts of barely-used space, marooned and
isolated because no-one can get at it. The column of unbuilt fresh air or
little-used offices and staff canteens above most High Street shops should be
some of the most valuable and useful bits of real estate in the country, but
large parts of it are sealed off.

So why hasn’t this potentially valuable real estate been
enthusiastically grabbed and developed into flats, offices or whatever by
entrepreneurial developers? Well, mainly because it’s hard to make money doing
it. But if you knew that a possible site wasn’t part of a protected view, you
could replace a tired old nothing-special building with something that’s ready
to become part of the High Street of the future. It would have the right mix of
retail, leisure, offices and even residential flats to work in the new world.
It would be taller, of course, but not absurdly so; think of Parisian
boulevards with apartments above ground floor cafes and shops as an example of
what might be possible. These would be great places to live and work, with nice
surroundings and a great vibrant atmosphere.

And we need the change to happen. Not just to breathe life into
our High Streets, but because we urgently need more housing too. Nick Boles,
the Housing Minister, is warning we may need to build on greenfield sites,
otherwise only the rich will be able to afford to buy houses, because the
country needs to build another 270,000 homes for each of the next five years.
So this approach is what High Street retailers call a ‘two for one’; it would
save Britain’s green fields, and our High Streets too, by building up rather
than out.

So here’s the other
half of the policy. In addition to ‘listed urban views’, let’s take away the
rules that prevent town centre developers from building upwards, to revive our
High Streets. We already let people extend their houses a little without
planning permission – it’s called ‘permitted development’ – so why not allow
the same thing here? We could tell developers they could build upwards to a
local maximum height, to match the other buildings in the same block, for
example, or the height of the nearest church tower, or the local treeline: and
they wouldn’t need planning permission to do it. Listed views would protect the
pretty bits; listed buildings would save the historic bits; and everything else
would be fair game. It could save our High Streets and our Green Belt at the
same time. Why not?

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