“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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.