When did the CPRE start hating houses?

New houses in Harlow New Town, 1951. Image: Getty.

Sir Patrick Abercrombie was Britain’s greatest 20th century urban planner. He master- planned London and Hong Kong, and helped found the first generation of new towns.

He was also a founding member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), and wrote one of its principal documents, The Preservation of Rural England, in 1926. The CPRE wished to promote the nascent methods of town planning to preserve the character of the countryside in the face of large-scale suburban and rural development. Development in the countryside was inevitable but would, the campaign believed, be of no major threat to its integrity with proper planning. In practice, this meant the cessation of dispersed ‘ribbon’ development, which was occurring along major roads, and its replacement with more spatially efficient new towns.

The CPRE was effectively the rural wing of the UK’s town planning movement; its initial members included the Town Planning Association and the Royal Association of British Architects. It aimed to plan new developments to preserve and enhance the rural landscape, just as the emerging science of urban planning would improve the urban environment.

No doubt helped by the high calibre of its members, the CPRE scored a significant number of successes in the 25 years following its establishment. Ribbon developments were outlawed in 1935, with the CPRE also contributing to the 1947 Town and Country planning act, the basis of the modern English planning system. In addition, the highest quality areas of the English landscape were made national parks in 1949. By embracing the new urban planning, the early CPRE permitted necessary housebuilding while protecting the essential character of the English countryside.

That is a bitter contrast to today. A former pioneer of English planning is now reduced to treating houses like poison. An organisation that once helped settle a million Londoners in new towns now does almost everything in its power to keep housing out of the countryside and inside existing city limits. It denies the scale of the housing shortage, vastly underestimating the number of houses needed. It overstates the case for brownfield industrial sites, by glossing over the fact that there are nowhere near enough to provide sufficient housing where most needed.


The powers that the planning system gives to local communities were partly designed by the founding members of the CPRE to promote good design and appropriate rural development. Now they are mainly used by local groups like a barricade to block every type of housing, even if well planned, designed and affordable. The CPRE may say it is protecting the countryside by minimising building, but this runs counter to its founding values. Housing, irrespective of quantity, should not be anathema to the integrity of the countryside if planned correctly. The original CPRE blocked badly-planned housing too, but it created real alternatives.

The CPRE has become like the “recluse who lives in the country”, once mocked by Abercrombie, which wishes to see the countryside “sterilised” and “all development prevented”.

When did the rot set in? The 1940s CPRE worried more about poorly placed billboards than new towns. By the 1960s, there were jitters about population increases in south east of England, but the CPRE was still broadly appreciative of housebuilding efforts. It was only during the early 1980s that today’s CPRE, with its singular obsession with preventing all building in the countryside, emerged.

CPRE reports from this time boast of battles with the National Housing Federation and fights to cut housing targets. Rural housing, a major priority for the organisation in all reports until then, goes unmentioned. There is no explicit denial of housing need or obsession with former industrial land, but the beginning of the rot can be seen.

Did its nerve simply fail? After all, simple opposition is always easier than finding a realistic alternative. Or perhaps instead, a generation which grew up securely housed due to rising homeownership over the 1960s and ‘70s, took housing for granted and forgot the needs of younger generations.

As the CPRE begins to recognise that the character and social fabric of rural England is imperilled by the resulting housing crisis, it must urgently return to a line from its first pamphlet: “It is not intended that the council shall be merely a negative force. It is part of its policy to promote sustainable and harmonious development.”

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.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.