Which four-letter acronym is worse for the housing crisis – the CPRE or the TCPA?

The world’s first roundabout, Letchworth Garden City. Image: Jack1956/Wikimedia Commons.

Many housing activists, and this magazine, have often blamed the Campaign to Protect Rural England for exacerbating Britain’s housing crisis: the CPRE denies the housing shortage and wants to continue the ban on houses on the edge of British cities. But I propose another culprit: the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA).

The TPCA was founded in 1899 by Sir Ebenezer Howard, founder of the garden cities movement and, true to the aims of its founder, spends most of its time lobbying for new towns. Sadly that seems to be at the expense of literally every other form of development. 

Simply put, it seems to be strangely allergic to housing density. According to its Vice President David Lock CBE, suggestions that it should be easier to build apartments in low density suburbs amounts to “garden grabbing”. Any attempt to densify existing sprawl is simply for the benefit of “transient childless households”, who in turn undermine the life of existing suburban communities. Mr Lock’s charming analysis neglects to mention that half the family homes in London are already occupied by professionals sharing. 

As recently as 2007, the TCPA Journal claimed that ‘There is little market evidence that buyers want to live in developments with densities at over 70 dwellings per hectare’. They must be right – after all, the denser parts of cities, like Mayfair for example, are well known for being extremely cheap and undesirable. 

To push this point further here is an image of all the times densification is mentioned on their website. 

I have nothing against new towns or garden cities. However, it is a problem when you are so fixated on one solution to Britain’s housing shortage that you dismiss all others. 

Creating new towns is difficult. We haven’t done it since 1970, and there is a good reason for that: it turns out locals often don’t appreciate having a conurbation of several hundred thousand imposed in their area by government decree. Scream NIMBY all you want, but the fact is that no government has considered it worth provoking this level of backlash for the last 50 years. 

Granted, some politicians occasionally talk about building “garden cities”. However, like the infamous phrase “brownfield site”, this mostly appears a rhetorical device by politicians to be able to say they can build homes – just in some undefined place which won’t irk the voters. When these politicians are in office and actually have to decide on a location it becomes too difficult and the whole enterprise collapses. 

This fact is further reinforced by the fact the TCPA won’t publish the locations for the new towns it wants to build – which I can only assume is because it would be too controversial. However, the suggested locations for the TCPA’s new towns were revealed in a book written by former chairman Sir Peter Hall on his deathbed. If your policy proposals are so controversial that they cannot be uttered until your dying breath, is there really any chance of a politician who needs re-election putting them into practice? 


If you are promoting politically impossible solutions to the housing crisis whilst simultaneously blocking the adoption of other reforms which might work, you are restricting housebuilding. You are preventing millions of homes being built while building nothing. There's a five letter word for that beginning with N. 

Plenty of scorn has been poured on organisations like CPRE for its economically illiterate policies. But the “new towns or bust” stance of the TCPA is equally ridiculous, because it ignores 50 years or so of housing history and politics showing that it is extremely difficult to build new town projects in a society with a homeowner majority. It seems to want to solve our housing shortage through an impossible dream of returning to the policies of 1960, when there were far fewer homeowners.

Belittle the CPRE all you want, and I have – but at least it occasionally shows some flexibility, particularly when it comes to building in areas far away from their donors. It is happy to meet members of the YIMBY movement and have an open mind about the YIMBY proposals on Better Streets, for example. Not quite the declaration that “perhaps it's not a good idea to make housing so insanely scarce that we have the most expensive housing in the world” we were looking for, but at least it’s a start. 

So, ultimately who is worse: the organisation obsessed with banning new houses in the countryside, or the one obsessed with banning new houses in existing cities?

I declare that as each organisation pursues a policy line that makes the housing crisis impossible to solve. They are both awful. 

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.

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.