“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’s in Edinburgh’s 10 year transport masterplan?

Edinburgh. Image: Getty.

Edinburgh City Council has released a draft 10-year transport plan, and put it out to public consultation. The jauntily-named Edinburgh City Centre Transformation Proposed Strategy comes soon after a 20 mph zone was rolled out and the extension of the city's tram line was approved.

The council’s overriding aims are to make the city centre much friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, and to get people out of cars and thus reduce air pollution. With the city forecast to grow larger than Glasgow within our lifetime, and with tourist numbers increasing with every year, it is encouraging that Edinburgh is making ambitious plans for a low carbon future. There is a surfeit of exciting ideas in the proposals, so even if half of them survive the consultation stage it would be a great achievement.

First off, yes there are going to be more trams. The council proposals include a a circular loop with trams going from Princes Street over the majestic North Bridge which connects the Old and New Towns. From there, it will continue over South Bridge, hook west through the University of Edinburgh area before linking back up with the current tram line at Haymarket railway station.

A summary of the plans: click to expand.

This is an exciting update to the tram network, which will provide services to the south of the city centre soon after the trams extend north through Leith. A free hop-on bus will also do a loop around the city centre, and will seek to emulate other cities, such as Talinn, which offer free transport.

North Bridge, which spans over Waverley station, will be closed to cars but will remain open to buses as this is a vital route. There will also be a new lift installed on the south side of Waverley station, to make it easier for people with prams, the elderly and the disabled to get from the platforms up to North Bridge: at present anyone doing this is required to take a lift to Princes Street, on the opposite side of the railway. Further lifts are planned to make it easier to get from the Grassmarket to Edinburgh Castle, from Market Street to The Mound, and from the Cowgate to George IV Bridge.


East of North Bridge there will be a brand new bridge for cyclists and pedestrians connecting the Old and New Towns. Although there is no crossing here at present, those with long memories will recall there was a pedestrian bridge here in the past, originally built as compensation for the fact the railway line had effectively split Edinburgh in half. However, British Rail “temporarily” closed the bridge from Jeffrey Street across the railway line to Calton Road in 1950, and never re-opened it again.

To the west of North Bridge lies Waverley Bridge, which is a lower-level crossing of the railway. At present this is open to all vehicles, and is where the bus to the airports departs from. The council’s plan is for this bridge, which runs from Princes Street to the bottom of the steep Cockburn Street, to be completely pedestrianised.

Actually, in a move that will prove popular with tourists, many streets in the historic Old Town will also be pedestrianised. The city has already began trials of this on the first Sunday of the month, allowing people to have access to Instagram-ready streets such as the winding Victoria Street, which leads to the Grassmarket, and Cockburn Street, which connects the Royal Mile with Waverley Bridge. A greater portion of the Royal Mile, the popular avenue for tourists which is packed during the Fringe, also looks set to be pedestrianised. The plan also promises more support for cyclists, with various segregated cycle lanes, such as one along a newly tree-lined Lothian Road to connect Princes Street with The Meadows.

The proposals for improved cycling access: click to expand.

Altogether, the 10 year vision is very ambitious and in Sir Humphrey-speak, “interesting”. There will surely be a lot of pressure from motorists and the Conservatives to scale back the plans, which aim to seriously reduce when and how car users can access the city centre, in favour of pedestrians and cyclists.

Motorists will lose crossings into the Old Town at North Bridge and Waverley Bridge, although they will still be able to drive from the middle of Princes Street up The Mound. Aside from that, car users wishing to enter the Old Town will be forced to either come in from the west via Lothian Road, or to take a long diversion around Abbeyhill to the east.

Of course the plans could still do with improvements such as re-opening the entirely complete suburban railway which circles Edinburgh and is only open to freight at present. Nonetheless, Edinburgh has been presented with an exciting low-carbon vision of the future. Hopefully it will act on it.

You can see the full plan here.

Pete Macleod tweets as @petemacleod84 and runs Pete’s Cheap Trains.