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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”