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.