News comes through of a new housing development not far from where you live: is your reaction one of enthusiasm or dread?
Most likely it’s the latter – but why? Development is something that communities used to welcome, indeed compete for, because it meant investment, expansion, improvement, prestige and new opportunities. So what changed?
I would identify two fundamental and inter-related causes.
Firstly, with the centralisation of political power during 20th century, development in this country became something that was done to communities, not by communities.
Secondly – and at the same time – the practice of architectural design was transformed from a living local tradition to the preserve of a distant professional elite. New materials, standardised components and the modernist aesthetic allowed construction to take place on an unprecedented scale and with contemptuous disregard for historical precedent and cultural context.
In the decades following the Second World War, a weary and conformist population went along with the decisions made on their behalf. But gradually we woke up to the full horror of the post-war building boom – an economic, social and environmental catastrophe for which there’s never been a proper acknowledgement of guilt, let alone an apology.
Instead, popular anger found an outlet through the planning system – which was used by the British public and their elected representatives to obstruct new development at every opportunity. Given the overwhelmingly negative experience of the recent past one could hardly blame them.
The response of government to this growing resistance was to spin an evermore elaborate web of planning guidance, development targets and regional strategies. But far from winning people over, this only further alienated local residents from any idea that they might be able to use the planning system in a positive way. Instead, the system became useful for only one purpose – stopping development, all of which was assumed to be harmful by default.
The Coalition has gone some way to cleaning up this mess. In particular, the National Planning Policy Framework massively reduces and simplifies the official guidance, while giving councils some of the tools they need to play a proactive role in the future development of their communities.
Yet this progress is under threat from those who believe that the only way forward is to weaken the power that communities have to block the wrong kind of development. They seem to believe that by crudely freeing up more land for construction, prices will come down, thereby allowing developers more scope to invest in good design.
There’s little evidence that indiscriminately permissive planning policies bring down prices – indeed the experience of countries like Ireland, Spain, America and China suggests the opposite. A planning free-for-all is great way of starting off a speculative bubble.
Even if land prices did come down (together with the costs involved in navigating an adversarial planning system), we cannot assume that the dividends would be invested in better design. In fact, as we’ve seen so often the past, the big developers will take every opportunity they’re given to churn-out standardised brick boxes.
Nick Boles, the current Planning Minister, deserves credit for talking about the importance of good design – but what does this actually mean? Ask the architectural establishment, and they will point you towards the sort of trendy glass boxes that feature on programmes like Channel 4’s Grand Designs. These are all very well in certain urban settings, but if we want to persuade our suburbs, market towns and villages that they can expand and still remain themselves then we need a very different approach.
We must have architects and planners that not only understand and value the gloriously varied vernacular architecture of this country – but can also design and plan new development that complements and enhances the established community. For one thing, we should junk the simplistic notion that new buildings must be designed in deliberate contrast to old buildings, as if brutalism was the sole alternative to pastiche.
Furthermore, it isn’t just individual buildings that we need to get right, but entire streets and neighbourhoods. In other words, we need a planning system that actually plans – rather than one that merely aims to filter out the worst of what gets proposed by the developers. This model of community-led development turns the existing model on its head. Instead of communities expanding haphazardly with each individual development that manages to force its way through the planning process, development would follow a coherent, over-arching design. This would be embodied within the recently reformed system of local and neighbourhood plans, but would go much further – incorporating key architectural decisions, not just the basic zoning and infrastructure planning that applies at present.
With the masterplan pre-agreed with residents and the wider community, the rights to develop each part of it would be auctioned off with the planning permission already attached. Thus with the uncertainties and complications of the planning process dealt with upfront at a community level, the new system would enable a much a greater range of developers to participate – including individuals, cooperatives, community groups and local businesses.
Obviously, more money would be required for the detailed design and consultation work required at the outset. But this would represent a reallocation of resources from the reactive work currently undertaken by planning departments and the enormous legal costs incurred on all sides in court cases and public inquiries.
In other words, by shifting the rewards of the system away from lawyers, consultants and the big developers and towards residents, small-scale developers and practitioners of good design, we will not only get more houses built, but better ones too.