“He assumed I was as opposed to new housing as he was”: what a Christmas party taught me about planning

Building houses in Ilford, 1947. Image: Getty.

Over Christmas I went to a drinks party. Sausages, crisps, wines, some nice ham. You’ve been there, or to hundreds like it.

It was in a small town in the English countryside: prosperous, though far from ridiculously so, and with a pretty town centre. The town is within London’s wider ambit, though some way beyond the green belt, and is coming under pressure to build more homes. And rightly so: it is quite well connected in several directions).

By chance, I ended up speaking to the local mayor of the small town, which is run by a parish council. He had no idea that I run Create Streets. A propos of nothing much I asked him, as neutrally as I could, what was likely to happen with new housing in and around this little corner of England.

His answer, and our subsequent brief conversation, was, I thought, brutally revealing. Here it is – as accurately as I can recall it:

“Well, we’re coming under a lot of pressure for new housing but we’ve managed to fight most of it off so far.”

“What about those new houses beyond the Church on the left?”

“Yes, we’re cross about those. They are absolutely horrid. Completely ruin that bit of the street. The developer only got away with it because he promised the planners to put in extra parking.”

“Does the town need extra parking?”

“Yes, we do. Lots of the people who work in the supermarket don’t live here. So they park in the side streets and clog them up. But the developer has deliberately made the new parking so expensive no one uses it. So now he’s got evidence that no one uses it and he’s putting in an application to build homes there. They’ll be just as bad and I am not sure we’ll be able to stop him. It’s a great shame.”

Then someone else came to say hello and the conversation sailed on unrecoverably to other waters.

The mayor seemed a nice guy. Ex-army – though not, I think, a former officer, so he probably has lots of former comrades and friends who need cheaper houses. Parish councillor roles are not politicised in this town, and he had stood as an independent. And I don’t think I come over as an unreconstructed NIMBY keen to deny affordable homes to my fellow citizens.

And yet, our two minute conversation said, I thought, a lot about what is wrong with housing provision and, crucially, its politics in modern Britain. Firstly, instincts. A decent local politician talking uncomplicatedly to a fellow citizen assumed the right thing to do was to oppose housing.

Secondly, expectations. Not only did he assume that anyone he met was likely to be as opposed to new housing as he was – he also assumed that new buildings would and must spoil the town and destroy value.


Finally, the conversation highlighted a very reasonable cynicism about the planning’s system’s ability to deliver necessary infrastructure (to say nothing about a deep confusion over what infrastructure is optimum or possible with evolving technology). All his assumptions about what would be delivered and how people would respond conspired to make him less likely to support development.

The real question is not how do we build more housing somewhere: rather, it’s how do we make new homes here more popular. Even his use of the word ‘housing’ was revealing. Housing is something new. Homes, streets and place names are something old. No one in this town talks of the existing town as housing. Until neighbours, residents, voters and very decent local politicians have the confidence that new homes will be attractive, will not blight their existing homes and will be accompanied by necessary supporting infrastructure, then it will be too easy, too often, to just say no. After all, why take the risk?

And it is all about risk: risk for neighbours, and risk for developers. Never forget how profoundly odd the British planning system is, the result of an unintended alliance between regulation-suspicious free marketers and planners, protective of their professional discretion. The result is a system which remains socialist in its scope but common-law in its application.

It means that what can be built on a plot of land is far more open to debate than in many other countries. Most are more rule-based with greater certainty about what is deliverable. They start with the position that you have the right to build on your land – you just have to do so in certain ways.

Our system starts from the opposite position. Other than a few permitted developments, you have no right to develop until the government grants it to you. However, what you can build is the subject of potentially infinite debate – and far greater risk to neighbours and local politicians elected by existing residents. It’s a vertiginous barrier to entry for smaller organisations trying to build new homes. We have it the wrong way round and it is just too easy to manage risk locally by saying no.

We need a more visual set of provably popular housing patterns which can be argued over democratically and then delivered with more speed, efficiency and certainty. This could mean that local politicians make different assumptions of their voters and can be more certain of the popularity and relevance of what will be delivered. It is time for direct planning revolution.

Oh, and by the way, the mayor was right about those houses.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets.

 
 
 
 

What can other cities learn about water shortages from Cape Town’s narrow escape from ‘Day Zero’?

Cape town. Image: Pixabay/creative commons.

Cape Town was set to run dry on 12 April, leaving its 3.7m residents without tap water.

“Day Zero” was narrowly averted through drastic cuts in municipal water consumption and last-minute transfers from the agricultural sector. But the process was painful and inequitable, spurring much controversy.

The city managed to stave off “Day Zero,” but does that mean Cape Town’s water system is resilient?

We think not.

This may well foreshadow trouble beyond Cape Town. Cities across the Northern Hemisphere, including in Canada, are well into another summer season that has already brought record-setting heat, drought and flooding from increased run-off.

Water crises are not just about scarcity

Water scarcity crises are most often a result of mismanagement rather than of absolute declines in physical water supplies.

In Cape Town, lower than average rainfall tipped the scales towards a “crisis,” but the situation was worsened by slow and inadequate governance responses. Setting aside debates around whose responsibility it was to act and when, the bigger issue, in our view, was the persistence of outdated ways of thinking about “uncertainty” in the water system.

As the drought worsened in 2016, the City of Cape Town’s water managers remained confident in the system’s ability to withstand the drought. High-level engineers and managers viewed Cape Town’s water system as uniquely positioned to handle severe drought in part because of the vaunted success of their ongoing Water Demand Management strategies.

They weren’t entirely mistaken — demand management has cut overall daily consumption by 50 per cent since 2016. So what went wrong?


Limits to demand management

First, Cape Town’s approach to water management was not well-equipped to deal with growing uncertainty in rainfall patterns — a key challenge facing cities worldwide. Researchers at the University of Cape Town argued recently that the conventional models long used to forecast supply and demand underestimated the probability of failure in the water system.

Second, Cape Town’s water system neared disaster in part because demand management seemed to have reached its limits. Starting late last year, the city imposed a limit on water consumption of 87 litres per person per day. That ceiling thereafter shrunk to 50 litres per person per day.

Despite these efforts, Cape Town consistently failed to cut demand below the 500m-litre-per-day citywide target needed to ensure that the system would function into the next rainy season.

The mayor accused the city’s residents of wasting water, but her reprimanding rhetoric should not be seen as a sign that the citizens were non-compliant. The continuously shrinking water targets were an untenable long-term management strategy.

Buffers are key to water resilience

In the end, “Day Zero” was avoided primarily by relying on unexpected buffers, including temporary agricultural transfers and the private installation of small-scale, residential grey-water systems and boreholes in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods. The former increased water supply and the latter lowered demand from the municipal system. These buffers are unlikely to be available next year, however, as the water allocations for the agricultural sector will not be renewed and there is uncertainty in the long-term sustainability of groundwater withdrawals.

For more than a decade, Cape Town has levelled demand, reduced leaks and implemented pressure management and water restrictions. This made Cape Town’s water system highly efficient and therefore less resilient because there were fewer reserves to draw from in times of unusual scarcity.

The UN Water 2015 report found that most cities are not very resilient to water risks. As water managers continue to wait for climate change models to become more certain or more specific, they defer action, paralysing decision-makers.

If we really want our cities to be water-resilient, we must collectively change long-held ideas about water supply and demand. This will require technological and institutional innovation, as well as behavioural change, to create new and more flexible buffers — for example, through water recycling, green infrastructure and other novel measures.

Although Cape Town avoided disaster this year, that does not make it water-resilient. Despite the arrival of the rainy season, Cape Town is still likely to face Day Zero at some point in the future.

The ConversationThere’s a good chance that the city is not alone.

Lucy Rodina, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia and Kieran M. FindlaterUniversity of British Columbia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.