“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.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.