Nicholas Boys Smith is director of Create Streets, a Commissioner of Historic England and chairs the Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which will be reporting soon.
Housing was secondary to Brexit in the general election, but is of fundamental importance to improving local prosperity, generational and regional opportunity, sustainability and quality of life.
In a famous essay, the philosopher Isiah Berlin cited the Greek poet Archilochus: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one important thing”. Our political debate on housing has been a housing hedgehog; focused on the crucial issues of supply of different types of housing (for sale, rental or social), but neglecting the wider role that houses, towns and places play in our individual lives, in generational opportunity and in local and regional prosperity. Our debate should become a housing fox. It should consider how the wider role of what we build and where affects wellbeing and prosperity.
Take the example of our personal health and wellbeing. Where we live has a measurable and increasingly predictable effect on our physical and mental health: on how much we walk, on how many neighbours we know or on how tense we feel on the quotidian journey to work or school. Design affects us from the air we breathe to our ultimate sense of purpose and wellbeing. The presence of such heterogenous variables as street trees, clear block patterns, a legible street network and facades that most people find attractive with colour, some level of symmetry, complexity and composure can all be associated with more walking and less crime, with better health and more support for development. And it’s a question of social justice too. Rich people experience more beauty than poorer people. And benefit from it.
Take a second example – very pertinent after the general election: the economic prosperity of our towns and the regional distribution of jobs and towns. Successful towns are first and last a place where people wish to come to meet, to converse, to buy, to sell and to be amused in the process.
But too few of England’s town centres are places where anyone would choose to be. They have lost their purpose. And they need to find it again. This is categorically not just a tale of former industrial towns. Take Maidenhead in Berkshire. It should be humming. In England’s self-proclaimed ‘silicon corridor’, it is only 20 miles from London and down the road from Windsor with Eton College and, well, the Queen. Where could be richer? Jobs abound.
And yet the centre is not humming – certainly not with people. The train station is cut off from the town by a furious dual carriageway, by acres of parking and by lumpen office blocks. Fight your way through to something that passes for a town centre and you immediately find empty shops, failing shops and strip bars. Up the road, the high street is assertively deserted for such a large town, has units to let and a meagre collection of chain stores. It ends abruptly in (yet another) dual carriageway. Amidst such neighbouring wealth, Maidenhead town centre is not a place to be or meet but a place to drive through – and fast. Prosperous neighbours from surrounding villages or suburbs meet elsewhere.
Hundreds of other towns would tell similar tales, many with the added savagery of industrial decline and the lack of secure jobs. Working for Amazon may be cleaner than working down a mine, but it is a lot easier to get fired. Not all towns are deprived. But nearly all are less prosperous then they could be. Visits to town centres have fallen by 17 per cent over the last decade. And more than one in 10 shops have stood empty for over a year. Meanwhile their populations are ageing. In the 30 years up to 2011, British small towns and villages lost over a million under 25s and gained twp million over 65s. Large cities gained over 300,000 under 25s and lost around 200,000 over 65s. Towns are for baby boomers. And cities are for millennials it seems. The town centres of many large cities (above all London) have flourished over the last generation. Small town Britain has, largely, aged and withered.
If we want to help some towns revive, everyone understands that local education is critical. Good education correlates with job-creation ten years later. Connectivity (rail, bus and road) is also crucial. (And busses are normally the best bang for your buck.) However, soft infrastructure is always critical. Successful towns need to be clean, pleasant places in which people want to live, work, spend time, set up businesses, raise children. Some of this is inconvertibly the role of the state which, after all, owns the public realm. This is true regional policy not naïve ‘regional development policies’ to ‘pick winners’ or subsidising employment where it would not otherwise go (the jobs tend to end when the subsidy evaporates).
This is why the interim report of the Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which I have been chairing alongside the hugely missed Roger Scruton argued that the aim of Government policy should be supporting place-making across all tenures and places. This will mean moving from the assumption that beauty is a property just of old buildings to the assumption that everyday beauty is a controlling aim in all that we do, and that new buildings, places and settlements can, indeed should, be beautiful.
To achieve this, we identified several priorities for the framework that government sets via buildings regulations, planning policy and fiscal policy. Among these were:
- Beauty first. Beauty and place making should be a collective ambition of the planning system. Great weight should be placed on securing them in the urban and natural environments.
- A level playing field. We urgently need to reduce planning risk to permit a greater range of small firms, self-build, custom-build, community land trusts and other market entrants and innovators to act as developers within a more predictable planning framework. More predictable design policy and standards should remove a degree of speculation on negotiating down planning requirements to increase land values.
- Places, not just houses. In striving to meet our housing targets we should be building real settlements and walkable ‘mixed-use’ places for all our daily needs. This might require changes in legal and tax regimes that could better support a long-term stewardship model of land and infrastructure investment and moving more of the democracy upstream from development control to plan making.
- Regenerative development. Developments should make existing places better, not just minimise harm. Local policy should encourage the redevelopment of retail parks and large format supermarkets into mixed ‘finely-grained’ developments of homes, retail and commercial uses which can support and benefit from public transport.
- Early collaboration, not confrontation. There is enormous scope to encourage the use of deliberative engagement, and design processes, to support wider community engagement in design solutions. Digital technology can really help here.
The polling, pricing and focus group data consistently shows that the sorts of places we’ve been making for the last 70 years are normally less popular and less valuable than most of our historic towns. A toxic cocktail of technology (we can build huge ugly sheds very cheaply), confusion about the role of the motor car in the city (for three generations we thought town centres were places for cars – they aren’t), increasing labour costs (making detail and ornament expensive) and modernist fashion (eradicating the past and the human scale rather than working with it) have all combined to ruin old places and build news ones that most people reject if they can afford to. Mapping selection effects in cities does not make pretty reading for fans of suburban cul-de-sacs or modernist anti-street planning.
It is time to fix this now and help set a framework in which society can create more homes in better and more beautiful places that are popular and good for us. This is, ultimately, the only politically viable way to build the homes that the young generation so desperately needs. It would also support the rebalancing of our nation’s prosperity by encouraging fewer go-getters to flee to the big cites and hot spots.
The dog that didn’t bark in the last election was housing. There are obvious reasons for this. (Brexit). But our undersupply of housing is not going away. Any government that wants to be re-elected will need to fix it. But doing so is a complex problem not just of numbers but of quality, place and wellbeing. We need to be a housing fox not a housing hedgehog.