The CPRE keeps lying about its support for affordable housing

A particularly attractive patch of London's green belt. Image of Rainham Marshes courtesy of Romfordian, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thie article was amended at 15.00hrs to correct a minor cock-up.

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England likes to think itself a supporter of affordable housing. It even supported a report by Shelter calling for an additional 3.1 million social homes over the next few decades. But to quote its former president Sean Spiers, “It is easy to say that one supports house building; the test comes when new houses are proposed for a specific place.”

The CPRE almost always fails this test. The only time I ever came across my local CPRE group in relation to social housing was when they were blocking it. My local council, in partnership with a housing association, proposed building 217 genuinely affordable homes for low-income workers. Alas, it fell foul of the standards of the ever-watchful CPRE Sussex as it was located on a part of the rural-urban fringe they liked. They objected, supported protests, and the scheme was scrapped. This is in a city where the number of people waiting for social housing is over 10,000.

This is not just my experience. CPRE Avonside suggested that the homeless and those in temporary accommodation should not be added to housing targets and then proceeded to demand a reduction in Bristol’s affordable housing target of 5,842 homes. In addition, they requested measures be taken to stop young families moving into the local countryside. CPRE Oxfordshire displayed even worse behaviour by insisting that the affordable housing provision for Oxford, a city with an average house price of £450,000, be cut from 1,400 homes a year to merely 776 (page 5).

The late planner Sir Peter Hall observed that many rural planning restrictions existed to keep lower-class housing out of the affluent shires. The CPRE may dispute that. But the behaviour of the CPRE about the prospect of affordable housing in their backyard gives strong support to his claim.

It is not just the opposition to affordable housing that proves Peter Hall's point; it is also the disgusting attitude of many CPRE members. For example, at the West of England Joint Spatial Plan examination, the CPRE representative referred to lower-income residents as “strays and single mothers”.

The entire planning ethos of the CPRE is to keep people away from where its wealthy supporters in the countryside live. It is effectively a consultancy firm funded mainly by the elites of the shires to promote policies to preserve their areas in aspic. When the CPRE says it wants affordable housing, what it means is that it wants this affordable housing to be shoved in inner urban areas as part of “regeneration” projects. CPRE London, for example, has demanded that 360,000 homes be built on existing council estates. 

Instead of allowing some affordable housing in the countryside they promote the “intensification of low-density housing estates” (paragraph 2). They appear to be advocating a process which involves demolishing the homes of low-income council tenants. Whether the current inhabitants actually want their homes demolished is not considered.

Granted the CPRE likes to pretend this is just about protecting the countryside, but this is clearly debatable. It likes to say that it believes in developing previously developed “brownfield sites” – but that isn’t always true. It doesn’t support developing these areas near their members, and instead prefers them to be designated greenbelt. It is surprisingly easy to build many things in the greenbelt: motorways, landfill, barns, even mines… just not housing. In fighting for the greenbelt the CPRE is not defending the character of the countryside from development, it is defending it from newcomers.

Sean Spiers celebrates a case in which “empty land that had been used for landfill and gravel extraction” was “protected” from having several thousand homes built there. It says a lot about the CPRE that, in its campaigners’ immediate surroundings, they prefer wasteland to the prospect of new neighbours.

So why do the CPRE even pretend to support affordable housing when nearly all of their policies are designed to make it impossible to build and most of their members would fight it? After all, there are only 1 million brownfield sites in England – most of them not where they are needed – and a need for 3.1 million social homes. Of‌ ‌course, the CPRE don’t have an answer to where the 2.1 million extra social homes should go.

It is probably because their talk of “affordable housing” is mainly a PR exercise. Supporting housing in the abstract is easy; after all, there is currently no major programme of social housebuilding in England. If one actually begins and, God forbid, builds housing too close to the shires, they will no doubt change their tune.

Simply put, the only affordable housing the CPRE will ever support at scale is the affordable housing that is never likely to be built. 

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.


Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.