How did we become such a nation of nimbys? We can’t always have been so hostile to new development otherwise we wouldn’t have become one of the most urbanised countries in the world. There must have been a time when our default assumption was that new development would improve our lives, even if we do now seem to assume the opposite.
Somewhere along the line something went terribly wrong and it’s not difficult to see what: decades of experience have taught us that new buildings are ugly or, at the very least, out of keeping with the places where they’re built.
It was good to see Nick Boles, the Planning Minister, acknowledge this problem in a speech to the Town and Country Planning Association late last year:
- “People look at the new housing estates that have been bolted on to their towns and villages in recent decades and observe that few of them are beautiful.
- “Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, many of them are pig-ugly.”
But why should local residents trust the Government to enforce acceptable design standards, when it continues to approve the most monstrous developments on its own doorstep? Simon Jenkins makes the point powerfully in a column for the Guardian:
- “I cannot find a Londoner who realises what is about to happen on the south bank of the Thames opposite Westminster. Johnson and the planning minister, Nick Boles, have allowed a Qatari consortium to build a visual wall of towers on a truly Stalinist scale behind the Royal Festival Hall next to Waterloo. It is as if Paris had relocated La Défense to the Ile de la Cité…”
- “This massive scheme will comprise the greatest intrusion imaginable on the London skyline. Sited at the tip of the peninsular loop in the Thames meander, it will block sightlines from Westminster to the City of London…”
- “Tall buildings well sited can be exhilarating. I was thrilled by Dubai's Burj Khalifa – located as it is in the desert – and the City of London tower cluster seen from the Monument; Canary Wharf is exciting from Greenwich Park, less so from Poplar. But siting is all. Most London towers are plonked down wherever the money talked.”
It’s not surprising that the money talks when opportunities for new development are so limited. When a site becomes free in central London, the price is so astronomical that the only commercial option is to build upwards (and, indeed, downwards too). If redevelopment could take place over wider areas, then other options would become available:
- “London's neighbourhoods can be revitalised, as are other European cities, to higher densities without the visual bruising of point blocks. It just needs planning.”
When he says it “just needs planning” what Simon Jenkins actually means is that it needs plenty of government intervention and civic leadership to assemble the finance and the land packages required for wide-area regeneration – which, needless to say, won’t appeal to those who believe that the purpose of the planning system is not, in fact, to plan, but simply to say yes or no to whatever the developers propose.
Everyone is entitled to their ideological positions, but the pro-development purists might want to consider whether the despoliation of London’ skyline is going to win people over to new development in the rest of the country.